SAUGUS — Beginning this fall, some Saugus elementary school students will be sent home with a bag of food each weekend and before a vacation week.
The number of economically disadvantaged families in the public school system is going up, said Superintendent of Saugus Public Schools Dr. David DeRuosi. About 47 percent of elementary school students are considered economically disadvantaged and between 1,200 and 1,300 children qualify for a free or reduced price lunches.
“I’ve been tracking an increase,” said DeRuosi. “We are watching a gradual increase of 5 to 6 percent a year going up. I wouldn’t be surprised if, for the first time, we will be at 50 or 51 percent economically disadvantaged next year.”
Between 40 and 50 families who have been identified by building principals as needing the most assistance will be the first to benefit from the program during a trial period.
“When you look at the cost of living versus the rate of increased salaries, there is a shrinking middle class,” said DeRuosi. “Money is not going as far as it used to, so families need to make tough decisions.”
According to a report by Feeding America, there were 15.8 million children in the United States in 2013 living in food insecure households. Food insecurity was defined as not having consistent access to an adequate amount of food.
“We know there are more people who need help, but how do we get it out there,” said DeRuosi. “We decided the elementaries are the best place to start.”
DeRuosi said he believes children in elementary school are young enough that they won’t be affected by the stigma attached to needed help, while many of the older kids might reject the help or get teased for needing it. Many elementary school children also have siblings in middle school, he said.
It has not yet been determined what will go into the bags or where the items will come from, but DeRuosi said the program will run off of donations.
“We spend so much time sending food to other countries and don’t even realize it is a problem right here,” said Jeannie Meredith, chairwoman of the School Committee. “Food is fuel for their brain. If they’re not eating, they’re not learning.”