By Stephanie Dickrell, St. Cloud Times
In little more than a year, four St. Cloud-area parents have managed to distribute more than 23,000 meal packs to hungry kids.
That's roughly equivalent to the student populations of St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud Community & Technical College, the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University — combined.
It started small. The group — Feeding Area Children Together — wanted to pay off lunch debts for students at their children's elementary school. They needed to raise less than $1,000.
But it soon became apparent the need was much, much greater, said Sara Greenberg-Hassan, one of the original four.
Fast forward to less than two years later, and the group is providing food for hundreds of kids each week in three local schools.
For some kids in lower-income families, the only meals they can count on are breakfast and lunch provided at school. Weekends and longer school breaks mean no guaranteed food.
The parents figured out a way to provide a 1-gallon bag filled with child-friendly, non-perishable food once a week. It's enough for breakfast, lunch and a snack for each day school isn't in session.
But even 23,000 meals aren't enough.
"We will probably ... at this point, probably triple that this year," Greenberg-Hassan told the St. Cloud Times.
Each school has a wait list of kids who want to enroll in the program. As of mid-October, there were about 190 kids waiting in the three schools.
"Every week, we get a few more," she said.
Greenberg-Hassan said the group does have the capacity to pack and hand out more bags at more schools.
"We just don't have the funds to reach those kids," she said.
To start with, organizers based estimates on free and reduced lunch rates in the schools: 70 percent of students at Madison Elementary, nearly 93 percent at Discovery Community School and more than 71 percent at North Junior High.
"We knew the need was out there and it was huge," Greenberg-Hassan said.
But they were a bit surprised coming out of the pilot program. Initially, the group struggled to reach a lot of people, Greenberg-Hassan said.
"Locally, it's a pride issue for some families," Greenberg-Hassan said.
But with time, numbers grew.
"Once they realized who we are ... they could trust us for confidentiality," Greenberg-Hassan said.
The group does its best to be discreet, to avoid those kinds of fears. Adults put the packs directly in kids' backpacks before the weekend, so kids aren't singled out.
Word-of-mouth and the presence of packs at school have also spurred interest.
"They're different than typical packs ... which often contain beef jerky and snacks. A lot of times those snacks are sugary," Greenberg-Hassan said.
The FACT parents decided to go another way.
"These are whole meals, geared toward kids," Greenberg-Hassan said. That includes macaroni and cheese, fruits and vegetables, oatmeal and other items.
The parents started in October 2017 at Discovery Community School in Waite Park and added kids at Madison Elementary School in March, Greenberg-Hassan said.
Around spring, the North Junior High principal asked if the school could get weekend packs to some kids, she said.
Previously, a few teachers were doing their best to help kids who needed an emergency meal.
"But it was really becoming out of their financial capability to do so," Greenberg-Hassan said.
United Way of Central Minnesota gave FACT a small grant to cover the food costs at North through the end of that school year.
The nonprofit is funding the same number of meals at North this year, Greenberg-Hassan said. That ongoing support is key to their mission.
"We knew going into it that we never want to start feeding kids and then suddenly stop," Greenberg-Hassan said.
Greenberg-Hassan said they've gotten a lot of feedback from kids, school staff, parents and teachers.
"The teachers say they see a lot less anxiety from kids before a weekend," Greenberg-Hassan said, especially with long breaks. Kids get excited when they see the totes they use to haul the packs to schools.
In one instance, Greenberg-Hassan said she saw a kid carrying his pack out of school. She offered to help him put the pack in his backpack. His response?
"'No. I'm going to hug it all the way home,'" she said.
A school counselor told Greenberg-Hassan they have seen a huge improvement in behavior at school with kids who get the packs.
"We're hoping to see academic improvement," Greenberg-Hassan said, but the program hasn't run long enough yet to get those statistics.
The group hopes it can raise enough to get packs to those kids on the waiting list. Members also want to start the program at Lincoln.
About 91 percent of kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch. That means they'll likely need a program the same scale as they have at Discovery.
Besides the small grant from United Way to help at North Junior High, the program is still primarily funded through individual donations.
The group is applying for grants.
"We primarily do it at night, because we all have our own kids and families," Greenberg-Hassan said. "We've spent countless hours at night on the phone, conference-calling."
The group has also started working with companies, who donate enough to cover the food in a certain number of packs. The company employees and others also pack the meals.
The group will also be looking toward winter break. Around that time, each family involved with the program will get a bag of more traditional groceries, including soup, pasta, bread, eggs and fresh fruit and vegetables. Donations and volunteer help are needed.