Note: This is part two of a profile on Nancy Blaue. To read the first post about her promotion of literacy through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and her job with Parents as Teachers, click here.
“Kids that are hungry aren’t learning.”
Any teacher that works with kids who live in poverty will be nodding his or her head right now. And there is no time when some kids are more hungry than at school on a Monday morning, after having eaten little to no food at home over the weekend.
Nancy Blaue sees poverty firsthand nearly every day when she does home visits for her job as a Parent Educator with Parents as Teachers. Her friend Clinetta Weinrich, who often says the quote above, saw the effects of it at school. And Clinetta, a (now retired) kindergarten teacher for the Wellsville-Middletown R-1 School District in Wellsville, Missouri, decided to do something about it.
She knew of a group that worked in tandem with the Warren County R-3 School District in nearby Warrenton to help feed kids over the weekends. The group would pack bags of food that were then distributed at school on Friday afternoons to kids who might otherwise be without food.
Providing Buddy Packs
Clinetta talked to Nancy about potentially starting a “Buddy Pack” program of their own, and Nancy was on board to help, as were several others. As there is no official parent organization that coordinates Buddy-Pack-type efforts, Clinetta contacted the group in Warrenton to find out what to do. She also talked to the superintendent of her school about the possibility, and he gave an immediate yes. He also found a space in the building where they could store and pack the food.
Some Buddy Pack programs get all of their food from a local or regional food bank, but the group in Wellsville use several avenues. The Warrenton program has provided them with shelf-stable milk and cereal, which Clinetta and her husband Dennis pick up each month. They order some of the food from Bratchers, a local grocery store, as well as some bigger chain retailers. And during their annual Bingo Night fundraiser, attendees donate specific food items to the cause in order to gain chances for the raffle items.
Each pack contains a couple of containers of milk, some juice, up to four cans of food, and various other food items. While the food definitely helps, Nancy admits it’s not necessarily enough food for every meal for an entire weekend, especially considering their district recently switched to a four-day school week.
But they don’t send more food home with the kids for several reasons. One is the expense of providing potentially twice as much food. The other is the weight of the bags. They’re already very heavy, and the younger kids wouldn’t be able to carry more.
At first the group just sent Buddy Packs home with elementary school kids, and they packed and stored everything at the school. But as they expanded the program to junior high and then high school, they outgrew the space. Now the local United Methodist-Presbyterian Church provides space for storing the food and the packing process. A local civic organization bought and installed shelving units for storing the pre-packed food. The school still provides space for storage once the packs are put together and ready to be distributed.
A group congregates once a month to pack enough Buddy Packs for the entire month. At least one person from the Buddy Pack committee is on hand to supervise and organize the packing. And then a group from the school or community comes in to pack. At the beginning of the school year, the committee goes to the school and asks different groups or clubs to help, such as National Honor Society, student council, sports teams, cheerleaders, FFA, and so on. They also reach out to community groups such as 4-H clubs.
On Fridays, the school counselor retrieves the Buddy Packs from storage and delivers them directly to the students’ cubbies or lockers. They don’t distribute them in the classrooms in order to preserve the kids’ dignity and pride.
There is an income criteria for which kids are eligible to receive Buddy Packs. In addition, parents are required to sign a permission slip that also allows them to inform the group of any dietary restrictions their children may have.
Funding for the program comes from various sources, such as fundraising events and donations from area individuals and organizations.
Starting a Summer Food Program
A few years ago, the school district chose not to provide a summer school program. The Buddy Pack committee realized that decision would mean a lot of kids would be hungry during the summer, if they didn’t have the option of eating at school during the week. So again, Clinetta “took the bull by the horns,” as Nancy says, and set up a summer food program for the months of June and July.
The same state program that would have funded food for summer school also provides funding for the summer food program. Grace Lutheran Church in Wellsville hosts the program and provides their kitchen for the group’s use. They have to follow all the state and county standards for food preparation, and they are required to cook certain recipes and offer specific types of food.
Anyone from birth through age eighteen can come and eat a cooked lunch every Monday through Friday at the church for free. The group hires some teenagers to supervise the children, and the rest of the cooks and helpers are volunteers from the community.
After lunch, the leaders provide an activity or program. They might take the kids to the library or the city pool. And some days, the children help out in the community garden Clinetta’s husband, Dennis, planted across the street from the church. They are able to use the vegetables they grow in the recipes for the food program. Nancy says, “It’s so cool because some of these kids have never seen a garden before. So they help Dennis pick vegetables, weed, and so on.”
Adults are also welcome to join their children for lunch, though the state won’t reimburse the money for adult meals. They just pay a few dollars to help defray the costs. Because of this and other factors, the group that runs the summer food program is never quite sure how many people will show up. “We just run by the seat of our pants,” Nancy says, “and so far it’s worked out. God’s been with us.”
Responding to Critics
As with any program where people are helping those in poverty, both food programs have their critics. “The parents just need to get a job.” “I just saw them buying lottery tickets.” “They had furniture delivered this morning.” Nancy’s response? “The kids are hungry.” And as was mentioned before, kids that are hungry aren’t learning.
The whole issue of poverty can’t be covered in this blog post, but it’s much more complex than most people realize. Nancy says, “Some of these folks aren’t even capable of getting a job. They’ve just been through so much emotionally and with their childhood, and they were never given the skills that you and I were given growing up. They might look just like us, but they’re not. They’re very different. I have families that have never used a bank.
“For you and me, our parents had college degrees and held down jobs. And our aunts held down jobs, and our uncles and our grandparents and our siblings and all the people in our life did. But for a lot of these families, that is exactly the opposite of what they grew up with. It’s very hard to break out of that kind of a cycle when your entire support system is in that cycle.”
If you’ve never experienced long-term poverty, and you’d like to gain more understanding about what life is like for many people living in generational poverty, Nancy recommends resources from Ruby Payne, such as her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies. “It’s absolutely the most fascinating thing and heartbreaking at the same time to hear her talk about what some of these families do and what their normal looks like. It’s very eye opening,” Nancy says.
As both Ruby Payne and Nancy know, giving people a handout typically isn’t the solution to their problems. But Nancy also believes that allowing kids to continue to go hungry because of issues or situations they can’t control—and subsequently being disadvantaged when it comes to learning—is not a good thing. “As a community we want our kids learning. That’s what we want. We want these kids to learn.” And if kids don’t learn, it’s more likely they’ll end up in the same situations their parents are in.
If you’d like more information about understanding poverty in America and how you can best help to alleviate it, click here to find a list of helpful books.
Making It a Family Thing
There’s no doubt that Nancy Blaue lives well, serves others, and is passionate about helping families. And not only does she help families, but so does the rest of her family.
“[Adam] really is my biggest cheerleader and always jumps in to help with whatever I end up doing. I’m really blessed. Our kids always show up to fundraisers to help set up or tear down too. Even our awesome sons-in-law have helped at Bingo Nights and Cinnamon Roll Days and 5Ks. They’ve always made it a family adventure.”
Twenty years ago, Nancy wouldn’t have dreamed she’d be doing what she’s doing today, but she wouldn’t change it for the world. She also knows it didn’t happen by accident.
“You can see where the Reading Council and the Buddy Pack program and the summer food program all really work hand in hand with my job [at Parents as Teachers]. It’s very connected. I think God had a very big part in that because I got that job on a whim because we needed me to be working. And all of a sudden it just became my passion and then all these other things came into it because of my job. I’m definitely right where I’m supposed to be. It’s fun to see how that all worked out.”
Starting Your Own Buddy Pack Program
If you’re interested in starting a Buddy Pack program in your own school district, first find out if there already is one, or if one is being planned. Contact the school administration to find out.
If there is not one, gather some like-minded friends to research the process. As there is no blanket organization, you have several options.
First, you can contact your area food bank. Chances are, they already work with some groups that are doing Buddy Packs.
Second, you can contact a group that is doing it in another district in your area. If a quick Internet search doesn’t give you any leads, Nancy and her group would be happy to talk to you.
You can get in touch with Nancy through the Contact Me page on this website. Simply state in the message that you’d like to talk to her about Buddy Packs and/or the Summer Food Program, and make sure to include the best email address at which she can reach you.
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