Smart Bellies works with Summit County schools to make sure young children don’t go hungry on the weekends |

Smart Bellies works with Summit County schools to make sure young children don’t go hungry on the weekends

A volunteer brings backpacks to a Summit County elementary school.
Courtesy Smart Bellies

When Sarah Schmidt and Margaret Sheehe heard about a need for food security among elementary students in Summit County, they knew they had the experience and the drive needed to act.

The two were skiing at Copper Mountain one day when they saw a Facebook post about a school that was struggling to pay for meals.

“Someone posted that one of the schools didn’t have enough money to pay for kids’ lunches or something like that. … I thought, ‘Oh, I wonder if Summit County has a backpack program,’” Schmidt said.

Schmidt and Sheehe both had a background in nonprofit work — Schmidt happened to be working at a nonprofit in Denver that gave backpacks full of food to underprivileged students to take home during the weekend. The two evaluated the local mountain communities and found Summit County had a need for increased food security. They created Smart Bellies to provide students and their families with a backpack full of breakfasts, lunches and snacks for the weekend. 

While the Summit School District provides a free and reduced meal program, students who are food insecure often struggle during the weekend. Programs that give these students food have been largely successful across the country. The Feeding America BackPack Program, the largest of this type of program, feeds more than 450,000 children every week. 

“Neither of us lived in Summit County when we began this. We’re both living there now, but we had asked around to some of the other counties to see where there was no program and where there was need, and Summit and Park county popped up as a good start. We reached out to some schools, and Frisco Elementary was our first school,” Sheehe said.

Smart Bellies operates by shopping for food, aiming for a $5 budget per backpack and then packing and delivering them to elementary schools on Fridays so students can take them home for the weekend. 

The work to fill the backpacks is done by Schmidt, Sheehe and community volunteers, and it is funded by donations and grants, including from Breckenridge Grand Vacations and The Summit Foundation for the 2019-20 school year. Despite the $5 budget, Schmidt and Sheehe try to make the snacks and meals as nutritious as possible.

“We try to make it pretty healthy. It’s definitely a tricky situation. We shop up in the mountains for the most part, but we have to do some of our shopping in Denver just because we’re doing kid-friendly and as nutritious as we can,” Sheehe said.

The duo try to strike that balance by buying natural peanut butter for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and fruit cups instead of chips or pretzels. 

Smart Bellies began serving the students of Frisco Elementary School, Summit Cove Elementary School, Upper Blue Elementary School and Breckenridge Elementary School in September 2018. This year, they are expanding to include Dillon Valley Elementary School and Silverthorne Elementary School, with hopes to include Park County in 2020. 

Before Smart Bellies began, Whitney Smith, a third-grade teacher at Frisco Elementary School, and her teaching partner recognized the need for expanded food programs, which is how the partnership started. 

“Teachers spend so much time with these kiddos, and you see what they’re bringing or not bringing for snack, and you see them when you have lunch duty, what they’re lunches look like,” Smith said. “It was interesting because I think everybody knew that there were people that would benefit from some extra food.”

Smart Bellies started as a weekend food program but expanded to meet other needs, including placing snacks in classrooms for students who didn’t bring their own and providing holiday meals for students’ families.

“The fact that they don’t have to worry or feel sad if they don’t have a snack … maybe they can focus on socializing with friends at snack or focus on what they’re going to do next or focus on a project or whatever it is without having to worry about what they’re going to eat next or if they have a lunch,” Smith said.

Schmidt and Sheehe don’t get to meet the students they help, but they still hear from the teachers, school faculty and even students that they’re making a difference.

“Nonprofits that work with kids, I think, are something special because kids don’t really have a choice in the situation they’re in. And to be able to help them and directly give them food to take home is a really cool thing,” Schmidt said. 

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