The Healthy Students, Healthy Saugus program provides 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 is run by Whitsons Food Services, the School Department’s current food service provider, and a group of volunteers. It is becoming increasingly important as the number of economically disadvantaged families in the public school system is going up, said DeRuosi.
"There are a lot of people in need right now," said DeRuosi in an interview Monday afternoon. "There are mixed messages, because more people are working but they're living paycheck to paycheck and food insecurity is real."
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.
When people are living paycheck to paycheck and experience unexpected costs, such as their car or heating system breaking down, often they have to sacrifice buying food, he said.
York Ford, Wheelabrator Saugus, The Rotary Club, Stop & Shop, and individual donors have stepped in to make monetary donations. The most recent donor, Saberia Bosak of J & S Jewelry in Cliftondale Square, donated $400 in gift cards on Monday afternoon.
"There are so many families and kids that need help right now," said Bosak.
Bosak leads the Zonta Club, a Chelsea-based all-woman humanitarian group that raises and donates money to hunger- and domestic abuse-related causes several times a year.
"I'm a Saugus resident and my business is in Saugus. I said 'I want to (help) Saugus, too,'" she said.
Bags of food were distributed for the fifth time on Tuesday. This week, an additional bag of food was given out to help with extra time students are out of school for Thanksgiving.
Brown bags are put together by volunteers on Thursday nights and contain two breakfasts, two lunches, two snacks, one can of vegetables, and one can of fruit. All items are nonperishable so families can stockpile the items they don’t use. Ideally, there is enough food in each bag to help the family members in the household, not just the student, said DeRuosi.
The bags are picked up on Friday mornings at the volunteer sites, many of which are 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 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.
About 55 families are being served by the program. DeRuosi said the goal is to help 75.