For some Valley students, free school lunches and breakfasts may be the only regular meals they eat.
Weekend feeding programs send students home on Friday afternoons with nutritious, easy-to-prepare food to sustain them through the weekend so they can arrive well-fed and ready to learn on Monday morning.
But new research by a Lycoming College professor indicates that these programs not only provided needed nutrition, but also have a positive affect on academic performance.
An article on the topic, “Weekend feeding (“BackPack”) programs and student outcomes,” written by Mica Kurtz, a professor of economics, and two co-authors provides the first evidence of the plausibly causal effects of weekend feeding programs on academic performance in the form of increased reading test scores, and suggestis that the programs also raise math scores.
“Childhood food insecurity is a significant problem for many students in this country; we have school breakfast and school lunch programs to help, but over the weekend many students (and their families) can really struggle,” said Kurtz.
“There is strong evidence to suggest that expansion of these programs could be a cost effective way to not only reduce childhood food insecurity but also improve scholastic outcomes for the most needy students, and this evidence is actionable.”
These effects are robust and appear strongest for the youngest and lowest performing students.
The importance of weekend feeding programs is not lost on Valley school districts.
“From the food service side of things, our program has been extremely successful with the weekend feeding program, ” said Jonathan Hall, food service director in the Warrior Run School District.
“Since the beginning of the school year,” he said, “our department has been providing meals for students over the weekend. We have also been providing meals when students are learning virtually. We have heard from several parents that elected to be virtual the entire school year that the meals being sent home have helped their students in providing some familiarity and stability.”
Currently, Hall said, “We send home about 500 weekend meals each week. While I can’t speak to test scores, I can say that consistency in our program has had a positive impact on student morale.”
Milton fights food insecurity
Prior to COVID, said Sharon Adami, Milton School District food service director, “we implemented free breakfast in the classroom at the elementary level and saw a vast improvement in trips to the nurses office, attention span of students, attendance improvements and general improved classroom environment attributed to the addition of this program.
“We operate on the premise that our food service efforts, both during school and out of school, support our students to be successful in and out of the classroom,” she said.
“We know for sure that many of our students would be food insecure if not for our programs.”
The Milton School District has served over 5,000 meals curbside in December offering daily pick ups at all schools when classes are completely virtual and pick ups at the high school curbside when school is open in person for those still choosing to learn online.
In addition to providing meals both in-house and curbside, the district is distributing more than 150 crisis food boxes to families weekly as well as more than 300 take-home weekend panther packs. Additionally, the school district made special arrangements for families unable to pick up meals through the local YMCA.
The Milton YMCA food program
In March 2020, as the country began to shut down due to COVID-19, food insecurity rates across the country skyrocketed.
The Milton YMCA mobilized to provide “grab-and-go” meals for school-aged children in the Susquehanna Valley, said Ronald G. Marshall, Jr., branch executive director at the Milton YMCA
The distribution of meals began on March 30. More than 56,000 meals, consisting of a well-balanced breakfast and lunch, were served to more than 1,500 children.
On November 20th, the Milton YMCA was approved to begin delivering meals to students in the Shikellamy School District. This program targets isolated students unable to access food distributions provided by the school district. The first delivery disbursed 235 meals.
The program is continuing in this new year, Marshall said, “and we are delivering 1880 meals per month with includes breakfast and lunch.
“The staff of the Milton Y and I are honored to be able to serve the needs of children in the Shikellamy School District and throughout community. Marshall said.
Line Mountain School District
Line Mountain does not do the weekend meals, said Jamie Shiko, food service director for the Nutrition Group in the Line Mountain School District, “however, we do have programs in our community similar to this that supply food to our kids for the weekend.
“We have a backpack program locally that packs meals for our students and sends them home with them on Fridays when we are in school,” Shiko said. “While virtual, they coordinate their meal pickups with ours for weeks where the kids are not in school. We do meal pickups twice a week while virtual. These bags include breakfast and lunch for the entire week.”
“I don’t have specific research studies,” said Mount Carmel District Superintendent Pete Cheddar, “but when we did our own internal research for the need for the Buddy Bag Program, we used information from the ‘Feeding America’ website. We also relied heavily on input from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank whom we purchase our food for the program from.
“I can say that there are a number of our students that come back to us every Monday with focus issues that we believe stem from not having proper nutrition over the weekend,” he said. “Our program is one way to hopefully alleviate that.”
Kurtz’s study can be read in full online at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272775720305264