As Americans, we live in one of the richest nations on the planet, and yet one in five children struggles with hunger.  We live in a country that has mastered innovation, able to send a rolling robot to Mars and communicate with it from 250 million miles away, and yet 15 million children in our own backyard live in food insecure households.  We live in a country where our government officials are enmeshed in a “School Food Fight” over whether or not to gut existing regulations that limit junk food in schools and ensure that hungry kids can get free meals.  Childhood poverty and hunger are like ghosts in the closet that we often turn a blind eye to. We hear them whispering in the back of our mind, but most of us never see what it does to our nation’s children.

Hunger is a huge health problem in our country, and researchers and advocates tell us it has impacts well beyond a child’s stomach.  Childhood hunger causes three distinct negative outcomes for children, seen in their health, their academic performance and their behavior. Hungry children cannot learn as much, as fast, or as well. They have lower academic achievement because they are not well prepared for school and cannot concentrate.  Undernutrition can have a detrimental impact on a child’s ability to grasp basic skills and can diminish concentration and overall learning potential. Behavioral issues include increased absences, tardiness and disciplinary actions, as well as a higher risk of suspension among older students.  Combined, these negative outcomes increase the achievement and life expectancy gaps, and have become the social issue of our time!

There are numerous organizations working on hunger related issues including Share Our Strength, Feeding America, Stop Hunger Now, U.S. government programs like SNAP and WIC, as well as food banks, faith based organizations and local NGOs.  In Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), we implemented a public/private partnership that works towards alleviating hunger for our most at-risk students and their families. Our program takes a two-pronged approach; we serve our pre-school students breakfast and/or lunch during the school day as well as send them home with food for the weekend, which is also known as a “backpack” or “bag” program.

In BVSD we partnered with local food bank Community Food Share (CFS), the YMCA of Boulder Valley and local philanthropist Gordon Gamm to implement our backpack program.  Currently running in four schools, this program prepares and delivers bags to approximately 250 children and their families every week.  Our collaboration is not the first to implement a backpack program, but ours has some unique components.  First of all, BVSD administers the program.  We work with CFS on food procurement, with the YMCA on fundraising and distribution, and with all of the departments in the District to procure, store, pack and distribute the bags.  Additionally, where most backpack programs offer highly processed, shelf-stable foods only, our program is at least 50% fresh fruit and vegetables, much of which is procured from local farmers.  The shelf-stable products that are included in the bags meet the rigorous District food and snack guidelines, in other words, free of chemicals, dyes, high fructose corn syrup and the like.

To further support the students and families, our bags include Harvest of the Month (HOTM) cards that showcase the local produce and recipes to assist the families in utilizing the fresh food in their weekend meals.  The inclusion of a high percentage of fresh food makes our program unique, and the HOTM cards and recipes help to support families cooking and eating together.  Where most backpack programs provide food that children can eat as snacks or consume on their own, our program promotes cooking and eating as a family because we know that coming together in the kitchen and at the table is an indicator of a child’s success.  One of my favorite stories from the program came from a parent on the very first day.  A pre-school parent sent us a picture of her and her child cooking dinner together. Not only was it too cute, but it was exactly the type of healthy food interaction that we hoped to instill.

Our backpack program is a success and we want to see it replicated in communities all across America.  There are hungry children in every state, every county, every city and every town in our country who are food insecure, and we believe that with public/private partnerships at a local level we can help these children to live long, healthy and active lives.  With programs like these we can begin to close both the achievement and life expectancy gap and perhaps begin to reform our food system as well.  It should be a birthright in our country that every child has healthy food every day and that no child is ever hungry.  Let’s work together to make this a priority backpack programs can and should be part of the solution.

About Chef Ann Cooper

Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator and enduring advocate for better food for all children. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ann has been a chef for 40 years, 17 of those in school food programs. She currently serves as the director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District. Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann founded the nonprofit Chef Ann Foundation in 2009 to focus on solutions to the school food crisis. CAF's pivotal project is The Lunch Box – a web portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and resources to support schools transitioning to scratch-cooked meals made with whole, healthy food.