CAPE GIRARDEAU — The subtle signs of hunger in young children at school can be a telltale indication of their home life.
Students whose families struggle to put food on the table often go for the lunch tray with bigger portions or ask for a second helping during breakfast, said Jennifer Nigut, a counselor at South Elementary in Kennett.
In the Kennett School District, where 66.3 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 2009, counselors started a backpack program to send food home to students.
"During the week they get at least breakfast and lunch, but over the weekend we didn't know what they were getting," she said. Monitoring student eating habits helped determine which students should use the program, she said.
The program, which started about a month ago, serves 10 families and is supported through private food donations. Although it is not part of a food bank program established late last year, it is part of a growing effort across the region to help feed students.
The Southeast Missouri Food Bank piloted the Backpacks for Friday program in September starting with Jefferson Elementary School in Cape Girardeau. The program began with 24 students and now includes more than 100 since expanding to Blanchard Elementary in Cape Girardeau and Morehouse Elementary in Sikeston.
Karen Green, executive director of the food bank, said she wants to continue growing the program throughout the food bank's 16-county service area. The program relies heavily on grants and partnerships with community organizations.
GRACES Women's Council helped fund the start-up program through a United Way grant. Funding from Montgomery Bank brought the program to Blanchard. A $10,000 grant from Unilever helped bring the program to Sikeston, she said. The Altrusa Club of Sikeston and Walmart also provide funding. About 100 volunteers also support the project by helping pack the backpacks once a week.
She said the food bank has a list of more than 15 schools interested in starting the program.
"We've simply had to ask them to help us find interested individuals," she said.
The program started close to the food bank's headquarters on Nash Road so volunteers and employees could learn how to implement and expand the program, Green said. She said the goal is to start and sustain the program once it is started at a school.
"You've got the need," she said. "The need is not going away."
The program came to Blanchard about a month ago and serves 23 families, said school counselor Lainie Bohnsack.
"With younger children sometimes they will even say I need some extra food or something to that extent," she said.
Bringing home a backpack full of food builds pride in the students, she said. There are rotating menus but the backpack contains items like peanut butter, cereal, shelf stable milk and canned fruit. It costs about $325 per year per child to fill the backpack.
"They're always excited to get it," Bohnsack said. "Some of them will pull it open right away."
Patricia Krueger, a volunteer at the food bank, said her grandson receives a backpack. She said her grandson, a fourth-grade student at Jefferson, sees the family struggling and the program gives him a way to help.
"I think it made him feel important that he was bringing something home to contribute to the family," she said.
She also uses it as a lesson about giving back to the community.
"They need to realize that it's a gift, it's not something they need to expect all the time," Krueger said.