Childhood hunger is an issue in Summit County, one that a few locals are tackling head-on with a new initiative - backpacks filled with food, sent home on Fridays with students from Silverthorne and Dillon Valley Elementaries who are in need of nourishment over the weekend.
Deb Hage, who coordinates the free weekly community dinner, said that increasingly, it has come to the attention of the members of Summit County Elks Lodge, Rotary Club of Summit County and Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church (the groups that sponsor the dinners), that there is more of a "food need" than what's being met through those Tuesday night meals. She spoke to Dianna Hulbert, Silverthorne Elementary principal, who confirmed that hunger is indeed a large issue in the schools - numerous children go to school on Monday having not eaten much over the weekend.
"And this has been going on for years," Hage said.
Funding for the community dinner has already been providing free morning snacks to the children of Dillon Valley and Silverthorne elementaries, and backpacks of food on long school breaks for the students who usually go without. Silverthorne Elementary has also been collecting food for school vacations. But still, it hasn't been enough.
"When we realized the need was bigger than that, we jumped in and said we can respond bigger than this," Hage said.
The backpacks have already been distributed at Silverthorne Elementary, and will be given out at DVE starting in November. They're filled with items like canned veggies and fruit, spaghetti and tomato sauce, macaroni and cheese, and rice and beans - the staples, Hulbert said. And, its enough to get a family through the weekend.
"Most of the food is being purchased from Food Bank of the Rockies for minimal amounts," Hage said. For about 100 children between the two schools, "we anticipate it costing approximately $1,000 a month."
The first month of backpacks were paid for by members of Lord of the Mountain, the second by a Rotarian. After that, funds are unknown.
"We're stepping out in faith that this community will come through," Hage said. "We are all moved by the thought that there are children in Summit County coming to school Monday without having eaten. That's not who we are as a county."
In Summit School District, the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch rose from 12.9 percent of the district's enrollment in 2000 to 34 percent in 2011. That percentage grew more than 10 percent in the past five years.
Silverthorne Elementary and DVE have the highest rates of students eligible for free and reduced lunch in the district; DVE's percentage is 53.3, while Silverthorne's is approaching 69.
Especially in the last couple of years, more and more families have been applying for free and reduced lunch, Hulbert said in a recent Summit Daily story about child hunger. When she started at the school seven years ago, roughly 52 percent of students were eligible, and it was evident that lunch was the main meal for some children.
"(Hunger) adds to the kids' anxiety, and their ability to focus," Hulbert said. "If your basic needs aren't met - food, clothing and shelter - then you're pretty much in survival mode."
Dillon Valley sees the need as well, and is excited to offer the weekend support for its families, said Cathy Beck, DVE principal.
So far at Silverthorne Elementary, the new backpack program is going well. Hulbert said that for some people, the school pick-up location is easier for families without cars, who oftentimes have to take numerous busses to get to the food banks (with crying children in tow).
"They're very, very thankful," Hulbert said of the families who have gotten the backpacks so far. "You can tell they really appreciate the opportunity."
Hulbert is thankful for Hage's help, and for all of the community members who have pitched in with donations.
"Without that, we wouldn't have been able to do anything on this scale," she said.