By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
SHENANGO VALLEY —
A few clicks of the mouse is all it will take for supporters of the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County to help make a huge difference in making sure some area elementary school students have enough to eat.
A $3 million Wal-Mart grant will be split among 40 food banks nationally and as of Saturday, the local food pantry has gotten enough votes to rank it No. 11.
Votes can be cast daily through Tuesday at www.walmart.com/hunger.
“But the others are close enough behind us that they could knock us out, so we want to be sure and have a comfortable lead. If we get it, it would mean $45,000 to fund our backpack program, which feeds 560 children locally who without the backpack often don’t eat from lunchtime Friday until Monday morning,” said Lori Weston, director of the food warehouse.
Handled completely by “hundreds” of volunteers, the backpack program is paid for with money raised by involved churches and other donations, rather than coming from the food warehouse budget, said Mimi Prada, assistant director.
This is the fourth year that the food warehouse has done the backpack program during the school year and feeds children from Hermitage, Sharon, Reynolds, West Middlesex. New Wilmington school district plans to join in the fall, Prada said.
Singling out those children who need the food without embarrassing them is a bit tricky, Prada said, and they rely on teachers and other school officials to determine, beyond just the financial guidelines, who may need assistance. And parental permission is required too, Prada said.
Before the program started, some teachers in Hermitage were buying food for children to take home for the weekends, and paying for it themselves. “Because they were noticing that some of the kids were coming Monday and couldn’t concentrate, or went to the nurse complaining of a stomachache and putting things together, they realized that they hadn’t eaten since lunch Friday at school,” she said.
“There was one little girl that I was told about who was fighting in line Monday morning just to get to breakfast. Others were taking the food left over on other’s plates and hiding it in their pockets,” Prada said. “And these children have an excellent attendance record. They won’t miss school because they don’t want to miss out on eating,” she added.
Rather than giving the students an extra backpack to carry, the food, which includes single-size portions of things such cereal, milk, fruit cups, applesauce, peanut butter, pastas, juice, is packed into a plastic bag that can be tucked into a child’s school backpack. Occasionally, if someone donates fresh fruit such as apples or pears, they include those. “And they love it. They just go crazy for it,” she added.
The thanks they receive, Weston said, is overwhelming. Although monthly reports are generated about what is distributed, it’s the cards the children send that mean the most. “And we can see, immediately, what kind of an impact this program is having,” she said.
“This was one of my goals when I took over as director. I knew about the backpack program in other areas and I wanted to start it here,” Weston, who has been in charge since 2005, said.
It costs about $25 per month per child, she said, and the fund-raising efforts of local churches and other groups is “phenomenal.”
If the food warehouse can remain in the top 40 vote-getters, the money will help expand the program to either increase the food already given or add additional students, Weston said.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the food warehouse has a host of events planned for the rest of the year, all aimed at increasing hunger awareness. Those events include:
ä Plant-a-Row, where farmers and gardeners are asked to plant an extra row in their garden to donate to the food bank. The program was started last year and growers from ages 4 to 84 brought in their bounty to share.
ä The 4th annual Race to End Hunger, scheduled for Saturday, August 3, held in conjunction with WaterFire in Sharon. The 5K/2 mile walk will be the first event of the WaterFire day’s activities. Volunteers are needed on race day, Weston said.
ä September is designated as Hunger Action Month. Encouraged by Feeding America, the country’s network of food banks, to hold as many activities as possible, including food drives and hunger awareness presentations. In partnership with Penn State Cooperative Extension, the county’s first Hunger Summit will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 12 at the Penn State Extension office in Mercer. Weston said it is an opportunity for service providers, businesses, government officials, churches and residents to meet and discuss how to serve those suffering from hunger.
ä Poverty simulation will be held Sept. 6 at Penn State Shenango. Weston hopes to involve local legislators, government officials and agency leaders to play the roles of the impoverished. Anyone interested in participating can contact the food warehouse at (724) 981-0383.
ä In October, the food warehouse will hold its anniversary celebration dinner at Avalon Country Club at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 24.
ä The annual Hermitage Light-Up Night parade in November will feature vehicles decorated by the food warehouse.
ä An annual direct mail holiday fundraiser, “Each One Feed One” will be held in December.
While financial support is always appreciated, Weston and Prada said there are other ways supporters can get involved.
“We always have a need for food drives, at any time of the year. Summer months are lean times for food banks when the need is great. Children are home from school and not receiving school lunches which adds a burden to families seeking food assistance,” Weston said.
Anyone wishing to donate food, money or time, can contact Prada at firstname.lastname@example.org