Initiative offers food for thought for AASD children

A pupil can have the newest desk, best textbooks and sharpest pencils, but without proper nutrition, he won’t be able to pay attention to the day’s lessons.

While cafeteria lunches nourish students throughout the week, some children might go hungry on the weekend.

That’s why, for the past two years, children enrolled in the Mountain Lion Backpacks program at Wright Elementary School are being fed on weekends with food sent home with them 32 weeks a year.

“A lot of people are in this situation … and they never saw it coming,” said coordinator Heather Little, who, along with her husband, Jim, started the local program for the 2011-12 school year.

Mountain Lions Backpacks is based on a national program that started in 1995.

Although at first interested in just helping out, Little and her husband took the lead after they contacted Altoona Area School District administrators in 2011 and were told to start with 100 of Wright Elementary’s 317 students.

Through Mountain Lion Backpacks, food is packaged in backpacks and distributed to classrooms Friday mornings. Little said the backpacks are filled with two breakfasts, lunches, dinners, drinks and snacks each weekend from October to May.

The children who are enrolled take the backpacks home over the weekend and return them on Monday to be refilled at the end of the week.

In its first year, the program, then called Blair County Backpacks, operated through Pleasant Valley Assembly of God’s Nehemiah Project.

Now in its second year, the program has more than doubled to reach 232 students. With its new name, Mountain Lion Backpacks, it also has nonprofit 501(c)(3) status under the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation.

Little said the program purchases the food for the program from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Harrisburg at 14 cents per pound, averaging out to roughly $3 per child each week.

Food Bank Communications Director Brad Peterson said Wright Elementary is the only school in Blair County that participates, but there are more than 50 programs like it in the 27 counties served by the food bank.

“This is something that’s happening across the state … across the country, actually,” Peterson said, with the food bank having fed 3,200 students last week through the program.

He said there’s been a 60 percent increase in the number of children enrolled in the last five years.

Little said the food is delivered to Altoona twice a month from the food bank, totaling between 5,000 and 7,000 pounds of food. Once the food is delivered, volunteers pack a month’s worth of food over the course of two days. Volunteers include junior high school students, Altoona Area School District Alumni Association members and Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees members.

All have a connection to the school and want to see children taken care of.

“They have a heart for it,” Little said.

Every Friday morning, a group of high school students takes a weekend’s worth of the food to the school, where they pack it into backpacks provided by the food bank.

Each child is assigned an alphanumeric code to correspond with their classroom, school district spokeswoman Paula Foreman said, so none of the program’s volunteers know which children receive a backpack.

It’s about protecting the children and their families so no one gets singled out, Foreman said.

Little said because this program is not run by the school and is not government affiliated, there are no criteria or requirements that must be met before a child can participate. Parents just need to sign up their child to be included.

When there is a long weekend off from school, Little said she tries to include extra food for them and their families.

For example, DelGrosso’s donated extra large jars of spaghetti sauce in December, and she purchased pasta and parmesan cheese from the food bank so the families could have a spaghetti dinner around Christmastime.

This year, there were two long weekends in February. Little said the food bank gave them 240 half gallons of orange juice, and they purchased muffin mix packages and fruit cocktail to give the families an extra “breakfast bag” that weekend.

“I can’t say enough what a great partner they [the food bank] are,” she said.

While it feels nice to be able to help, Little said she hopes the day comes when there is no need to feed hungry children in the area.

In the meantime, the Littles are looking for people to serve on a board and to create a foundation to keep the program running in case she and her husband can’t one day.

“I know that this program is different because there is a need,” she said. “These kids are hungry.”

Altoona Area School Board President Ryan Beers assured Little and program volunteers at a board meeting this month that the program would continue, even if Wright Elementary closed as tentatively planned at the end of the school year.

“If we don’t have a building in a certain location, [it] doesn’t mean the need isn’t still going to exist,” he said. “So, I can speak for myself, and, I think, the rest of the board and administration: We’re going to make sure [the program] continues throughout the district.”

Anyone interested in a similar outreach in another school or district can contact Mountain Lion Backpacks through the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation or at h.little@verizon