This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philabundance is launching a program with Edward Gideon School to combat food insecurity. Once a month, the program will provide students with backpacks full of food to take home over the weekend.
Gideon, one of nine schools in the first group of community schools that have been designated by the mayor’s Office of Education, is in Strawberry Mansion, more than four miles away from the nearest grocery store. Each of the school’s 285 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because they live near or below the poverty line.
The preK-8 school will be among a handful of schools in Philadelphia to provide the program, which starts Feb. 23. Margaret Stetser Elementary School in Chester-Upland has already launched such a program.
“Gideon was selected because their poverty rate is high, food security was identified as an issue, they have the necessary space, and the school felt like they’d be a good candidate,” said Saxon Nelson, technical assistance and capacity coordinator for community schools in the mayor’s Office of Education.
Philabundance plans to implement a version of the program at five other schools in the city: Hartranft, A.B. Anderson, Sheppard, Sharswood, and McKinley elementary schools.
Fighting food insecurity is a long tradition at Gideon. More than a decade ago, led by a school counselor, the staff decided to pool the community’s resources to create holiday food baskets to send home with students whose families were most in need.
“When [the counselor] left, I didn’t want that initiative to go by the wayside, so I kind of inherited it,” said Deborah Goebig-Gaskins, a teacher at Gideon who took over the effort’s primary organizing role five years ago.
The staff at the school let Gaskins know which students they think come from households with the greatest need. She and fellow teachers send letters home to parents to tell them that their child can pick up a basket on the last day of school before Thanksgiving. Gaskins then sends out letters to parents and staff asking them to donate food.
“It makes you feel good to help those who may not have as much as you do,” she said.
The typical Thanksgiving basket includes a turkey and three pounds of nonperishable groceries. The turkeys are donated by the staff. Last Thanksgiving, the school assembled 17 baskets. Gaskins said that they even receive a few modest donations from some of the families that were selected to receive baskets.
“People in this community have been very generous,” Gaskins said.
Every student who donates food writes their name on a piece of construction paper shaped like a turkey’s tail feather, and at the end of the Thanksgiving food drive, Gaskins pastes them all onto the image of a turkey that’s displayed outside the school’s office.
Gideon had food left over last fall from the basket giveaways, and Gregory Wright, a healthy schools coordinator for community schools, was able to distribute that to families at William Tilden Middle School, one of three community schools that Wright supports in his position.
When Gideon principal Shauneille Taylor started at the school, the holiday basket program had been operating for years.
“All I did was encourage them, and ask what can I do to contribute?” Taylor said.
Taylor also began her own initiative, trying to simultaneously get more students to eat breakfast and reduce lateness. Students who consistently arrive on time for the school’s free breakfast program receive a ticket that gets entered into a raffle. Each month, they draw a name for students of different age groups and give away several $5 prizes.
Taylor said one of the challenges at Gideon is “getting kids to bypass the corner store.”
As a healthy schools coordinator for community schools, Wright said that his priority is “finding ways to reduce chronic illnesses with the knowledge that there’s a link between poverty and health.”
Wright said that one of his goals is to increase physical activity, consumption of water, and access to healthy food among students. But getting them to make healthier food choices is not always easy, particularly because of the school’s distance from the nearest grocery store. Wright said that as an alternative, students rely on corner stores, loading up their diets with processed foods like doughnuts and sugary drinks.,
But Gaskins said that some students don’t even eat the unhealthy food.
“I know that there are children who come to school hungry, and [free breakfast and lunch] may be the only meals they get,” Gaskins said. “That breaks my heart.”
When Taylor started at Gideon, she had students do a service program with Stop Hunger Now, which conducts food drives in the United States and redistributes the food in Third World countries.
“I wanted my students to understand the importance of service and empathy,” Taylor said.
Although the project was a success, there was some negative feedback about it.
“The initial push-back was: Look at the community we serve. Why aren’t we doing a stop hunger now program right here?” she recalled being asked.
Rolling out a program
When the food backpack program starts at Gideon, Taylor will have one answer for her critics.
Philabundance will provide boxes of prepackaged food to the school. Wright will organize volunteers to distribute it in classrooms and place it in students’ backpacks.
Hillary Stiebel, the manager of direct programs at Philabundance, said the backpacks will contain three to five pounds of food and at least one pound of produce.
A typical bag will come with brown rice, canned chicken or tuna, individual instant oatmeal or mini-wheat cereal, packets of raisins, and canned mixed vegetables. The produce included will be different each month. Students will get a bunch of bananas, head of cauliflower, or a bag of apples.
Before the program begins, students will be sent home with a flyer about it, which also serves as an opt-out form that can be filled out and submitted by parents who do not want to participate. The pilot version of the backpack program will run through May.
“For our pilot season, the school will receive backpacks once a month and report back on how many backpacks were distributed and issues we can help them with,” Stiebel said.
“We’re a partner as well as a consultant,” she said.
This summer, Philabundance will evaluate the program to determine how to improve and expand it at Gideon in the fall.
“Hopefully, this will be a smooth coordination, but we are open to changing the process if need be,” Wright said about how the food is distributed.
Stiebel said that Philabundance wants to increase the frequency of backpack distributions, but that will depend on fundraising efforts.
“The hypothesis is that we will want to be at schools every week if possible, but that’s a budgetary issue,” Stiebel said.
“Another thing I expect is that folks will ask for more variety in the backpacks,” because the only component that varies consistently from month to month is the produce item, she said.
Principal Taylor said that what excites her most about the program is that it’s opt-out, instead of having students opt in as they do with the food baskets.
“We’ve chosen this model because it’s likely to serve more students,” Stiebel said, adding that the reduction in paperwork will “ease the burden on everybody.”
Gaskins said that every year, several holiday baskets aren’t picked up by anyone. She said that in some cases, the family lets her know that they won’t need it this time, but in other cases, “I can’t get in touch with the family at all.”
Taylor said that she suspects some families may be too prideful to admit their need, and as a result many baskets go unclaimed. Taylor said there was a lesson that she learned about her own staff at the school when some families did not pick up their baskets.
“People think just because you’re working every single day that your needs are taken care of,” Taylor said, but that’s not necessarily the case.
“We have some support staff members that are in need of baskets, so we gave them the [unclaimed] baskets.”
Taylor said that she suspects that many students could use the baskets, but don’t speak up out of fear of being looked at as a charity case.
“With the backpack program, because it’s opt-out, there won’t be just five families in each classroom getting food. You’ll see lots of them with these backpacks,” Taylor said.
“This is for everybody.”