Stacks of canned foods line the walls of the teachers' lounge at Silverthorne Elementary School. Cans of corn, beans and spinach have taken over the table and boxes of breakfast cereal and granola bars reach to the window. This isn't the setup for an elaborate faculty feast; it's an everyday occurrence. And the food isn't going to the staff, it's going to the students.
The Friday Food Bag program is designed to help combat student hunger during after-school hours, including weekends and breaks. While students can expect meals at school throughout the week, sometimes the situation at home is less certain, which can lead to anxiety, lack of focus and poor performance in school.
Student hunger is an issue easy to overlook in favor of those that happen during school hours. However, according to statistics, the number of incidences is increasing, both locally and statewide. In Summit School District, the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches has risen more than 10 percent in five years. At Silverthorne Elementary, for example, roughly 50 percent of attending students received the free and reduced lunch in the fall of 2011.
When Dianna Hulbert started her job as principal at Silverthorne Elementary seven years ago, she noticed a need. She spoke with staff and parents, did related research and looked into the free and reduced lunch numbers.
"I just felt like, wow, I think there's a need here, I wonder how many families are making it over this break," she said.
That first year, Hulbert threw her efforts into fundraising and gathered enough to put together the first bags of food.
"I took my CRV down to Costco and loaded it up as much as it could load and sent 100 bags of food out that year," she said. "Every year it's just grown."
The first year, bags were sent home over winter break. The following year, bags went out at spring break as well, and by the third year, bags were available for each of the holiday breaks.
Just more than a year ago additional help came, this time in the form of active Rotarian and community dinner organizer Deborah Hage. After reading an article about child hunger, she decided she needed to do something and contacted Hulbert at Silverthorne. The result was the Friday Food Bag program, allowing bags to be sent home every week instead of just the weekends.
"It's been a dream all along that we would be able to give kids bags of food every week," Hulbert said.
And it's a good thing, too, seeing as the numbers of students requiring free and reduced lunch have gone up even more. It's now at 68 percent, Hulbert said.
This year marked a new step for the Friday Food Bag program, expanding it beyond Silverthorne to the other elementary schools within the county. While Silverthorne gathers and bags the food for its students, volunteers take care of the food for the rest of the district in a space donated by Lord of the Mountain church.
Julie Carlberg is the volunteer coordinator for the district-wide aspect of the program. She and a handful of dedicated volunteers take time to organize the bags, pack them full of food and drive them to the schools that need them.
"A lot of community members have come forward," Carlberg said, both to volunteer and to donate. "I think it's hard for us sometimes up here in Summit County; we think that there's no problem. It's everywhere. If you look you can see it, and that's what the teachers were seeing in the schools."
Both Carlberg and Hulbert explain that Hage has been instrumental in raising the funds needed to purchase the food. Because bags are handed out to students throughout the district for every weekend, not to mention larger bags for longer breaks in winter and spring, fundraising is a never-ending process. Hage estimates that she needs at least $1,500 a month in order to cover food needs. However, instead of worrying, she said she trusts Summit County.
"The generosity of people in Summit County for human needs is phenomenal," Hage said. "I expressed an articulation that there was a need and it was immediately funded."
Over at Silverthorne Elementary, Alice Dudley and Elsa Pinon Aguilar have stuffing bags down to a science. They line the bags up along the table and circle around, distributing boxes of pasta and cans of tuna wherever necessary. They do their best to make sure the bags are nutritionally balanced, with items that can be used for all three meals.
While items like pasta, beans and canned vegetables are easily accessible and relatively inexpensive, the challenge is finding a cheap, nonperishable source of protein. Most often it's tuna in cans and peanut butter.
"It's the protein that's costly," Hulbert said.
While much of the food is bought at a discounted rate through Food Bank of the Rockies, sometimes stores like City Market and Safeway have even better deals. Hulbert and Hage both comb the local advertisements, keeping a sharp eye out for special deals, especially those involving fruit and protein sources.
Dudley estimates she and Pinon Aguilar fix up around 30 bags of food each week. That number moves up to 50 when the holidays and school breaks come around and students will be out of school for multiple days. Dudley said she, Pinon Aguilar and Hulbert find small chunks of time throughout the day to step aside and fill a few bags.
"Any time of the day that we have a minute to do it," Hulbert said. "Nobody around here sits around much; there's always something to do."
Thanks to community donations, the Food Bag Friday program has grown immensely in just the past year. Hage said she hopes that people continue to realize its importance.
"It's very difficult for some people, Summit County residents, to look around our beautiful setting and our wonderful school situation and realize that there are children hungry. That has been the biggest difficult in raising funds from some places, because people are astounded that there's even a need," she said.
However, the support has kept coming and the benefit has already begun to be felt in the school, by students and teachers alike.
"Teachers are saying the kids are less anxious about leaving on Friday afternoon," Carlberg said. "We're making a difference, I think, and the kids really need it."