Sodexo, city each give $1,000 to nutrition program for homeless students

Fewer homeless students in the Forest Grove School District will go hungry on the weekends as a result of a Backpack Food Program backed by city officials and Sodexo Inc., the district’s Maryland-based food services provider.

Sodexo recently gave the district $1,000 to support the program — which provides food-filled backpacks to homeless students each Friday — through the end of the 2012-13 school year, said district Chief of Staff Connie Potter.

“Last year, 16 students per week received the backpacks,” noted Potter. “This year, the number is expected to increase.”

The backpack program, which just completed its fifth year, dovetails with the district’s summer food program, which provides breakfast and lunch to needy students at various locations around western Washington County between June and September.

Fran Scott, area operations manager for Sodexo, said that while many supplementary nutrition programs cater to elementary and middle school students, Forest Grove’s is putting its focus on high schoolers.

“Our programs are expanding, and we’re still serving the elementaries and middle schools,” she said. “But I was looking for a niche where students weren’t being reached, and found that was the homeless students.

"It's kind of the hidden group no one knows about."

As-needed basis

District Homeless Liaison Alice Beggs makes the contacts that so far this year have resulted in three Forest Grove High School students connecting with the program.

Last year there were between 10 and 12, backpack recipients, but Beggs knows more will be participating in late winter and spring. “We’ve been operating on an as-needed basis and are gearing up for a big push with the second semester,” she said Thursday.

Between September and December, Beggs added, the program “runs at a bare minimum, responding to immediate needs.” During the second semester, “we run on a regular weekly basis with many more participants.”

Those who participate qualify for assistance through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Education Act.

Scott and Beggs work with former Family Resource Center director Martha Ochoa, who recently became the district's bilingual liaison, to order and divide the food — which consists of everything from canned corn to granola bars — on the Tom McCall Upper Elementary School campus. Depending on the recipient’s needs, they might also include peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, tuna fish and canned fruit.

“We found it really difficult to include fresh produce because of the perishable quality of those items,” said Ochoa. “But if a child has a special medical or dietary need, we try to cater to that.”

Local churches have taken on the task of packing the backpacks before distribution each week.

Budget covered

Sodexo’s Trout, who oversees the 17-year-old summertime lunch program in Forest Grove, said she was happy to know that with the $1,000 check from her employer, another $1,000 from the City of Forest Grove and an additional $400 in miscellaneous donations to the Family Resource Center, the backpack program’s $2,400 budget is covered through June.

“The fact that on the weekends these kids are taken care of is a great thing,” Trout noted.

To Ochoa, who has 35 homeless families on her caseload this year, it’s evidence that people really do care. “As these numbers grow, so does the need for this program,” she said.

Bev Maughan, assistant to Forest Grove City Manager Michael Sykes, said the $1,000 the city kicked in came from its annual charity auction, held in conjunction with a holiday buffet, during which employees selected a local charity as benefactor.

“The charity chosen this December and in 2010 was the Family Resource Center for students experiencing homelessness,” Maughan noted.

Monday through Friday

Scott said the backpack program is offered to students as an option and is completely voluntary.

“We send a letter inviting the student to participate,” she said. “We try to be very, very respectful of their situation.”

Instead of requiring students to pick backpacks up at their home school, they’re afforded more privacy by going to Tom McCall to receive the food.

Beyond that, it’s all about student health and getting a leg up on a good education. The program, Scott said, helps ensure that a portion of the 62 percent of Forest Grove district students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the week have an opportunity for better nutrition on the weekend.

“We know we’re taking care of them Monday through Friday,” Scott said, “but our concerns went beyond that.

“If we can try to make sure they’re eating healthy food, and they’re not getting sick and missing classes, that’s a step in the right direction.”

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