According to an article by The State of Obesity, a project of the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “More than 15 million U.S. children live in “food-insecure” households — having limited access to adequate food and nutrition due to cost, proximity and/or other resources. Low-income individuals are at increased risk for both food insecurity and obesity.” The Hunterdon County Partnership for Health (PFH) is working to “build a Culture of Health” and encourages all Hunterdon residents to maintain a healthy weight.
Conversations with Hunterdon County school nurses revealed a concern about access to food, especially over the weekends, when children can’t take advantage of school feeding programs
“Access to healthy food is paramount in reducing the obesity rate in Hunterdon County or anywhere for that matter – and children are particularly vulnerable. If we can help our kids develop healthy eating habits while they are still young, we can help reduce the rate of obesity, depression and chronic disease throughout the lifespan,” says Kim Blanda, RN, BSN, Clinical Liaison, Hunterdon Healthcare and Coordinator for the Partnership for Health.
In the healthiest and wealthiest county in New Jersey, you may not expect to find issues with food insecurity. However, PFH’s conversations with Hunterdon County’s school nurses revealed a concern about access to food, especially over the weekends, when children can’t take advantage of school feeding programs. A lack of nutritious food can result in learning issues, attention deficits and obesity related to consumption of low-nutrient food.
The Backpack Program is a simple strategy to provide for students who might otherwise face hunger. Our partner, NORWESCAP, raises money each year to cover the approximate $11 per child, per weekend cost, to supply a “lifeline” of food for consumption between Friday afternoon and Monday morning through its weekend feeding program. Through partnership with the school districts, the Backpack Program brings NORWESCAP’s services into local schools. Children who participate in the Backpack Program are district students who meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch, and are deemed in-need by their school nurses. Many of the students in the program are part of large, and often multi-generational families with limited resources.
Helene Meissner, the Director at NORWESCAP’s Philipsburg location, manages the weekend feeding program and other services in several counties, including ours. In Hunterdon, typically a school nurse champions the initiative in their school and handles the only required paperwork – a permission slip requiring a parent’s signature. Students’ identities are kept confidential, as NORWESCAP only requires a weekly call from each participating school indicating the number of backpacks to be prepared. Until recently, each school was responsible for picking up the food from the Philipsburg location. This year, NORWESCAP received a grant from the Morgan Stanley Foundation in partnership with Feeding America to expand its services in Hunterdon. In the future we will look for alternative sources of funding to sustain this work. Our conversations with Hunterdon County school nurses have clearly indicated that there are many more children in our community who would benefit from this program. One nurse explained, “If we can provide food for these children, we will not only be offering sustenance, but gaining their families’ trust so we can help them with other needs as well.”