SAUGUS — The School Department and a group of volunteers are trying to keep children from going hungry while they are out of school by sending them home with a bag of groceries.
The number of economically disadvantaged families in the public school system is going up, said Superintendent of Saugus Public Schools Dr. David DeRuosi.
“Dennis Gould, who works at the (Saugus United Parish Food Pantry), wanted to reach more families,” said DeRuosi. “Schools are in the middle of all of it.”
Starting in the fall, the Healthy Students, Healthy Saugus program will provide a weekend supply of nutritious food for each eligible child when free and reduced price school lunches and breakfasts are not available to them on the weekends and during other school breaks.
The program will be run by Whitsons Food Services, the School Department’s current food service provider, and a group of volunteers.
Brown bags will be put together by volunteers on Thursday nights and will contain two breakfasts, two lunches, two snacks, one can of vegetables, and one can of fruit. All items will be nonperishable so that families can stockpile the items they don’t use. There will be enough food in each bag to help the family members in the household, not just the student, said DeRuosi.
The bags will be picked up on Friday mornings at the volunteer sites, many of which will be parishes across town, and brought to each of the elementary schools.
Principals and two school liaisons who float across all the town’s public schools will help identify students who could benefit from the program and get in contact with parents.
Parents can stop by their child’s school office on Fridays during pick up to grab a bag.
“We’ll do it discreetly,” said DeRuosi. “We’ll do it the right way.”
When the program rolls out mid-September, 50 to 75 bags will be distributed. DeRuosi expects that number to grow once the program becomes more sustainable.
About 47 percent of Saugus elementary school students are considered economically disadvantaged and 1,200 to 1,300 children qualify for a free or reduced price lunches.
According to Feeding America, a hunger relief nonprofit, 12.9 million children lived in food-insecure households in 2016. About 13.3 million, or about 18 percent of children in the United States, lived in poverty.
During the 2015 federal fiscal year, 22 million low-income children received daily free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. Meanwhile, fewer than 4 million children participated daily in the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option.
What many people don’t recognize, said DeRuosi, is that food-insecure households are not necessarily struggling every day.
“Food insecurity is different than most aspects of what we think of with hunger,” he said. “If my car breaks down, do I have $500 to repair it and will I still be able to buy food? When people think hunger, they think homeless. That’s not necessarily the case.”
Rev. Martha Leahy of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Saugus said many times, families can get through the first three weeks of the month, but on the fourth week they struggle to make ends meet and seek assistance.
The church tries to help families out by offering them gift cards to the grocery store.
“The amount of people who have a cushion (in their bank account) is low and credit card debt has gone up because people are living off of credit,” said Leahy.
Leahy is one of many volunteers collaborating on the effort.
“We’re building it as we go,” she said. “If a community doesn’t buy into a project, it won’t be successful.”
Luckily, many town organizations and businesses have already stepped up to the plate.
DeRuosi hopes Healthy Students, Healthy Saugus will soon have nonprofit status. Monetary and food donations can be made directly to the project through Gould, who crafted the idea for the program.
They are looking for very specific items for donation.
“We need good, healthy food for kids,” said Leahy.
Whitsons compiled a list of nutritionally balanced food chosen for their high vitamin and nutrient content:
Proteins including canned tuna, chicken, salmon, peanut butter, and canned beans; fruit including canned fruit, mixed fruit cups, applesauce, bottled juice, and shelf stable juice boxes; carbohydrates include whole grain pasta, tomato sauce, individual low sugar, whole grain cereal, individual oatmeal packets, small boxes of whole grain rice, and popcorn.
They are also looking for canned meats, stews, chili, macaroni and cheese, jelly, granola bars, whole grain graham crackers, pretzels, Goldfish and other crackers.
Toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, toilet paper, paper towels, and deodorant will also be accepted.
Gould can be reached at 617-257-4847.