NOW program works to fight childhood hunger
Since its inception in 2013, Nutrition On Weekends has gone from serving 29 students to nearly 300
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — In a 2012 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Marshfield School District, 20 percent of local students in eighth, 10th, and 12th grade reported going to bed hungry at least once a month.
The findings were surprising to local entities, said Marshfield Area United Way Executive Director Paula Jero.
“We never asked the question before,” Jero said of the inquiry into childhood hunger. “Honestly, I don’t think we ever really thought that this was an issue.”
In response to the survey results, Marshfield Area United Way started developing a plan to address the problem. United Way spent six to eight months asking food pantries and guidance counselors in the area if they were seeing the same results that the survey indicated. The answer was an emphatic yes.
In October of 2013, the Nutrition On Weekends (NOW) program began serving 29 local children to help them stay nourished on Saturday and Sunday when school lunches were not available. Today the program serves 274 children between Marshfield, Granton, and Spencer. Auburndale and Stratford may join the program in the near future. Students can only be referred to the NOW program by guidance counselors.
Supplying food for 274 students takes a community effort and involves about 50 volunteers each week. Volunteers include numerous local businesses, individuals, and the students from the Alternative High School in Marshfield.
Food is ordered through the Marshfield School District, which then supplies United Way volunteers with the raw materials to put together the contents of the lunches.
Volunteers do everything from organizing the materials that will be needed to make the lunches to making and packing the food and delivering it to the schools.
“The volunteer piece of it is critical. There is no way United Way could ever do this program with two and a half staff every week for (274) kids,” Jero said.
Contained in each food pack are two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two cups of low-sugar cereal, two pieces of fruit, baby carrots and celery sticks, and two snack items.
“The feedback we got was this needed to be food that was ready to eat for kids,” Jero said. “We really got the message. It was really important that we got food that was kid-ready to eat.”
United Way only purchases bread, fruit, and vegetables for the lunches. The rest is donated by the community. Nasonville Dairy donates cheese for the food packs every week.
Because of donations and a Security Health Plan grant that gives $25,000 to NOW, United Way is able to keep the cost of maintaining the program relatively low at $10,000 per year.
“As long as that (community donations) continues to happen, United Way dollars can stretch really, really far,” Jero said.
During the summer, when school lunches are not available, the NOW program continues to operate but shifts its process slightly. Every other week during the summer, families are able to pick up a large box of food that contains a loaf of bread, jars of peanut butter and jelly, and fruit, among other items. During the summer Saint Joseph’s Hospital purchases the food rather than the school district, and Festival Foods provides a buy-one-get-one-free donation of bread.
Mark Gayhart, Festival Foods store director in Marshfield, said that supporting NOW was important and that the company was surprised to learn of the extent of childhood hunger in this area. Festival not only donates bread during the summer but often volunteers to help pack the lunches during the school year.
“The NOW program to me just seems like a great way to give something back to the community. Our team here at Festival was surprised to hear how many children and young adults are in need of this program,” Gayhart said. “I am proud of the associates at Festival that give a small portion of their time to help make lunches here at the store and help support the program.”
Jero said that NOW has become one of the programs about which she is most passionate.
“It’s awesome to feed kids, but it’s (also) awesome that you get to see companies and employees become involved in it,” Jero said. “They say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Let me tell you, it really takes one to feed a child.”
If you are interested in donating food items to the Nutrition on Weekends program, visit marshfieldareaunitedway.org/NOW.html. On the bottom of that page is a link to a list of the program’s most needed items, which includes low sugar cereals, pretzels, nuts, applesauce cups, granola bars, Ziploc sandwich bags, and much more.
A growing problem
The following information comes from the 2014 Vital Signs report, a collaboration between Marshfield Area United Way, the city of Marshfield, and Marshfield Area Community Foundation.
- Thirty-four percent of Marshfield public school students currently participate in the free and reduced lunch program.
- Participation in the free and reduced lunch program has increased by 130 percent in the last 10 years in the Marshfield School district.
- The amount of children receiving food stamps more than doubled from 2003-2013 in Wood County. In 2013, over 11,000 Wood County adults and over 7,000 children received food stamps.