Ashland resident Amy Stewart started a mission to feed hungry students innocently enough, even a bit by accident. She spoke to a teacher at John Muir Elementary School about a winter coat program and remembers the teacher saying the coats donated are wonderful, but what students really need is food.
A few months later, she's heading a backpack food program to support kids so they aren’t attending school with empty bellies. “If you see a need," she asks, "why wouldn’t you fill it?”
Stewart began researching other school programs which supplement food for kids in need and that’s how she found her answer. Stewart learned about “Hunger Free Colorado,” which provides backpacks to children each week with breakfasts, lunches and snacks.
That was in January.
Now, she has 16 children who receive her backpacks filled with food every Thursday. Through the process, she confirmed what she suspected about hungry children and their families — primarily grateful, working parents who appreciated the help. “It’s not the people you think it is," she says. "Poverty is not choosy.”
John Muir is a Title I school, which means that at least 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches based on parents' incomes. A family of four earning $44,000 per year qualifies for the school lunch program. Forty-two percent of the students who attend the school qualify for free or reduced school lunches.
But for Stewart, it’s not so much a numbers' game as a call out to the future. “If you help our younger generations, it pays off in a huge way," she says. "It says someone cares about you, and that’s a powerful thing.”
As cuts to social programs are being considered, the supplemental nutrition assistance program (food stamps) has been under scrutiny for possible cuts, as well as the school lunch program. Stewart says it’s important to be prepared and have services in place.
"We have to be ready for anything now,” she says.
Those who argue the programs are bloated have called for reductions, including White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who has said there is no demonstrable evidence that school lunch programs improve performance.
But Stewart never questions the need. She says she knows as a parent of children attending John Muir and as a member of the Parent Teacher Collective that children in the school are hungry, because she sees it.
“I don’t know how to just walk by," she says. "Being of help feels like the whole point of living.”
She is not alone in that perspective. “The Methodist Church has helped big time," Stewart says. "We got to give huge boxes for spring break.” First United Methodist Church of Ashland also does the Tuesday meal for people living in poverty.
Stewart started filling backpacks in February. Right now she’s on her own seeking out food donations and filling the backpacks, but she’s had help from friends like Allison Wildman, also a PTC member, and the school itself, as well as parents and the church. John Muir School used its connections to get 16 brand new backpacks from Neff, an outdoor clothing store located in California.
“The kids were so excited to get these brand new, cool backpacks. Before that it was just whatever I could find.”
Stewart says she wants to see the program grow. “I would love to expand to other schools or even districtwide. I’m not sure how to do it yet, but this is something I’d love to see. There are so many schools and kids who need this help. I think it would be huge for Walker Elementary, too.”
Despite her enthusiasm, it’s not always easy. Sometimes she worries the food donations won’t come or they won’t come in a way that maximizes help for the children who need it.
“It’s important that every child get roughly the same thing. We don’t want it to look unfair,” she says.
Beyond that she grapples with some dilemmas that can be costly. “Several kids have dietary restrictions or food allergies. Gluten-free can be really expensive and I have to buy that separately.”
But she is undaunted in her determination to keep going and she’s found evidence that it will continue to work.
“Donations have just appeared. One time we got a check for $100 just out of the blue," says Stewart. “What makes this work is that I just jumped in and the universe has risen up to keep it going. It very much restores my faith in humanity.”
As the program continues to expand, Stewart says she doesn’t mind the amount of work and, while she has faith the need will be filled, there is always the dicey subject of money. Stewart says financial help will have to come in order to progress. She’s hopeful donations to the John Muir Parent Teacher Collective under the backpack program will increase.
She wants to be certain the students of Ashland can get the food they need.
“I keep thinking about that one hungry student,” says Stewart of her work. “I feel our life is meant to be more. I don’t know how to do life any other way.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.