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Weekend meals program adds schools, students

A meals program for elementary students in need of weekend nutrition will add more than 100 students and two schools when it begins distribution of food bags each Friday in October.

Rogue Powerpack, which relies on a volunteer workforce and financial support from foundations and local Rotary clubs, will serve 350 students this school year at eight schools, up from 215 students at six schools last year.

One in five students in Jackson County experiences food scarcity in the home, said LeAnn Mobley, president of the organization, which has operated since 2013. Rotary Club members and other local groups assemble the food packs and distribute them to kids each week, she said.

“We need to develop that bond, that ownership connection,” said Mobley. “You get to interact with beneficiaries every time. That’s what keeps the volunteers doing this; seeing the kids over and over again and knowing we are impacting kids in a positive way.”

Each pack includes six meals and two snacks for over the weekend. Three extra meals are put in when there’s a three-day weekend. Longer holiday periods can’t be accommodated because there would too much food for kids to pack home, said Mobley. The program started with backpacks, but there is not a way to clean them easily, so it switched to blue drawstring bags that are washable.

Emphasis is on kid-friendly, single-service food items that students can easily open and prepare. Pull-lid soup cans and dry soup mixes, applesauce containers and protein bars are among the items included, as well as carrots, apples and oranges.

School administrators use the first month of the school year to determine which students will participate. Parents must sign permission slips, and students are given instruction on procedures. Initial distribution takes place the first Friday in October and continues throughout the school year.

“Being in the trenches, we see the impact every Friday; the joy and appreciation from kids and families trying to get food,” said Brent Barry, a Rogue Powerpack board member and Phoenix-Talent School District superintendent. “The need has always been there.”

The program grew out of efforts by the Junior League of Jackson County, which saw the need at Phoenix Elementary School but realized the task was too big for a small organization and approached Rotary. That’s when Mobley became involved.

Participating schools include Phoenix, Talent and Orchard Hill in the Phoenix-Talent School District, Oak Grove, Jackson and Washington schools in the Medford School District, and Hillside and Table Rock schools in the Eagle Point School District, likely joined by Shady Cove this year. New to the program is Central Point’s Jewett Elementary.

School food services company Sodexo, which contracts with all districts except Central Point, has been onboard with help since the beginning, said Mobley. Sodexo handles food deliveries and helps volunteers assemble the food packs.

Diane Mihocko is a member of both the Eagle Point Women’s Club and the Eagle Point Women’s Golf Club, which supply volunteers for the program at Table Rock Elementary in White City. The program started there in January.

“If you come often enough, you get to know some of the kids,” said Mihocko. Two volunteers were needed per week for the 15 students served, but numbers are expected to rise by five to 10 students this fall, with more resources available.

Cost for the program is about $6,000 annually for each school. Grants have come from mostly local foundations, with local Rotary clubs also donating substantial amounts to sustain the effort, said Mobley. This summer the Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation donated $7,500, which has allowed adding more students. Other support has come from the Anna May Family Foundation, West Family Foundation and Robert and Frances Chaney Family Foundation.

“For future growth and sustainability, we want to adopt a different model,” said Mobley. Two more elements need to be added to reach the goal of having a program in each elementary school in Jackson County, she says.

Support from businesses and other organizations, such as church communities, will be needed, said Mobley. The third leg would be getting food donations. Last year the Crater Lake Boy Scout Council conducted a food drive that resulted in $5,500 worth of food contributions, and Amy’s Kitchen in White City made a large donation of pull-top soups. First Interstate Bank in Medford will hold a food drive at four branches this fall.

Students’ eligibility levels for free or reduced-price lunches in the eight schools range from 100 to 87 percent, said Mobley. Individuals can support the effort with a donation of $40 for a month of meals and $225 to provide them throughout the school year for a student. More information and donation options can be found at roguepowerpack.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

A meals program for elementary students in need of weekend nutrition will add more than 100 students and two schools when it begins distribution of food bags each Friday in October.