Posted Wednesday, January 9, 2019 8:12 pm (Brattleboro Reformer)
By Maggie Brown Cassidy, Reformer correspondent
PUTNEY — On Thursdays, a few students at a time are released from their class at Putney Central School to visit Food4Kids, their in-school food shelf. They bring a backpack and choose one or more items to take home.
Ellen Strong, a member of the board of the Putney Foodshelf and a parent volunteer with the program, said that Food4Kids was inspired by a similar program at Guilford Central School.
"It's free and open to all students," she explained. "They get the opportunity to bring their own backpacks and 'shop' the shelves every Thursday. There are actually several guiding principles. One is to provide food to families in need; that's our core mission at PCS. We also are trying to help kids try new foods, so it's important that they are able to select foods they're interested in trying. We are also incorporating nutrition education."
"We try to provide the best-quality food we can, to make sure we're serving food we feel good about," added Hannah Pick, executive director of the Putney Foodshelf, which is responsible for Food4Kids. "One way we did that is during the Top the Truck food drive, the Putney Co-op offered a deep discount on food that Co-op customers could donate; at the register they could just buy food to donate and the Co-op ordered it. We got cases of organic peanut butter and Vermont-made jerky, and Annie's organic mac and cheese."
Strong said an important element in the program is that all students take part except those whose parents specifically opt out.
"We're trying to reduce stigma by encouraging all students to participate, whether they take home one new item to try, or fill their backpacks," she said.
Shannon Chaney, a PCS parent, particularly appreciates this aspect of Food4Kids.
"Our daughter has gone with us to the Foodshelf a few times, so she can see where food comes from," she commented. "We go to farmers' markets, and to pick fruit — I don't want her to feel weird about how we feed our family.
"There's a stigma that can be attached to the Foodshelf, and I don't want her to feel that," she added.
"For those of us who have to reach out to the community, it's great, with the social aspect of destigmatizing accepting help from the community when you need it."
Chaney said that her daughter's freedom to choose foods has helped her develop and express responsibility and empathy.
"What's been great is when she comes home and says, 'I know you like this, so I brought this for you,' or she brings something for her little brother. She comes home with things that we can all cook together," Chaney added. "She'll bring home a box of pasta and a can of spaghetti sauce and say, 'So we can have spaghetti tonight.'"
Food4Kids grew out of the Family Food Bag program, which provided bags of groceries that students took home on Friday. St. Michael's Episcopal Church, in Brattleboro, has supported both programs, according to Pick.
"They funded the Family Food Bag program for many years, and since Food4Kids replaced it they extended their support towards our new program. We are so very grateful!" she said.
Pick said most of the food comes from the Vermont Foodbank. While Food4Kids is a program of the Putney Foodshelf, it has its own Vermont Foodbank membership, and Strong added that Food4Kids also has its own brand, complete with logo and mission statement. She noted that the participation rate, an average of 125 kids a week, or about 70 percent of the school, shows how strongly the program serves the mission statement, "Empowering students to meet their own nutritional needs, and providing access to the food they need to thrive."
"It's kind of mind-blowing to me, how well the kids have responded. It was my highest hope that the children would respond with that enthusiasm," she continued. "Our concern was how do we reduce stigma, but it seems almost like a non-issue."
Pick explained that Marie Kim, a parent, is the volunteer program manager, ordering the food from the Vermont Foodbank, picking it up in Brattleboro, and restocking the shelves with the help of middle school students. Kim and other adult volunteers staff the site on Thursdays; every class has a designated time-slot for its students' shopping hours. Pick said students visit the site in groups of four, two shoppers at a time;
"We move the kids through as fast as we can to get them back to class," she said. "They step out for 10 minutes, or as long as it takes."
According to Marisa Lazarus, school counselor, students are unselfconscious when they choose their groceries.
"I think that it's reducing the stigma of accessing food," she commented. "There are a few classes I'm teaching in when the kids leave, and they're all excited. Even the older kids are looking forward to the time when they get their backpacks and go."
In an email, Kim said she loves to watch the students choose food for their parents, grandparents and siblings.
"It's so sweet that they are thinking of others as they shop," she said. "One kindergarten shopper is especially particular because he has a sibling with allergies and is always having me check labels before he puts [items] in his backpack."
Strong noted that in addition to providing good nutrition, the program fosters literacy.
"We also have a little free library managed by our librarian, Lauren Perlstein, and it serves two purposes," she explained. "Kids have books to look at while they're waiting to shop, and they can take one home for free, and keep it. We're actually out of books, so we welcome donations - of both books and food."
Strong noted that the whole school contributes to the program's success.
"We're very grateful that the Putney administration and staff have been so supportive, because we're pulling kids from class, and they've been extremely flexible," she said.
Pick said that Food4Kids, which started as a way to provide food for families, has grown in unexpected ways.
"Our goal was to meet the needs of those who need help," she said, "but there have been all these other layers on top of that that have made it a positive experience for the students."
"The most gratifying part is the responses," Strong concluded. "I've heard so many positive responses from parents - their kids want to come home and cook the food they got that day. I've had multiple parents tell me that Thursday is their favorite day of the week because it's Food4Kids day."
Maggie Brown Cassidy is a frequent contributor to the Reformer.