Jen Hutchinson is the Youth Programs Manager at the Vermont Foodbank
I am starting my fifth year of managing the BackPack program for the Vermont Foodbank, and to be honest lately have been pretty caught up in the details. I have been thinking a lot about what new products we will put in the bags, what new schools we will add to the program this year, how our delivery schedule will change and how many more students we will reach. While all of this planning is essential for the success of the program, it's not really the stuff that inspires me and as the beginning of the school year gets closer and closer I am realizing that somehow I have lost my key focus. Seeking inspiration, I reached out to others who are involved in the program on a more personal level with the children.
I started first by contacting the coordinator of our Barre City school BackPack program, Ben Brown. Barre City School has the largest number of children participating in our BackPack program and it's also in the city where I live. As I spoke with Ben, I didn't hear him talk about the "details" or the hard work he puts in to get all of the backpack bags out to kids each week. Ben spoke about the need. He said that two-thirds of the youth at his school receive free or reduced lunch and he very easily made the connection between the children receiving free school meals and those needing food for the weekend. Then he spoke about the kids and how, while the food was extremely important to the children, what mattered most was just that someone cared about them. Ben told me about a particular situation in which he was having difficulties getting through to one student who had constant behavioral issues. Once the child realized Ben was in charge of the BackPack program, the child had a change of heart and a new respect for Ben. As a recipient of the BackPack program, it made a difference that Ben cared enough to ensure that this child was fed when school was out.
Ben's story also struck a chord in me. I know that childhood hunger has become a serious issue in our country. I also know that we have a lot of work to do to change the foods our children eat. With the help of food celebrities like Jamie Oliver and Mario Batali speaking out about child hunger and nutrition, the issue has hit the mainstream. It's not hard to convince people these days that a lack of good, nutritious food makes it very hard for children to learn and grow. While I know all of this, and in the past, it has been what drives me to continue the work that I do for the Foodbank, Ben's story gave me a new perspective. See, for all of us adults out there who are concerned about hunger, "facts" are what we need to know. The "facts" make hunger and food insecurity a cause we can advocate for. Kids care less about the facts and figures. Kids want to know that someone cares about them—that while their families are struggling, others in their community are taking notice and, with compassion, are willing to help.
Children have a real pure and honest way of telling you how they feel. Recently, while eating breakfast, I asked my five-year-old son how long he thought he could go without eating. He looked at me very confused and said, "I don't know what you mean." So I asked, "Well if we had no food in the house and you weren't sure when you were going to eat again, how would that make you feel?" His entire demeanor changed, and with his head down he very quietly said, "I would feel really sad."
So in that response is my new perspective and my new inspiration. It's easy as an adult to get caught up in all that we know about a cause we believe is important. What I am trying to remember is that the most important part of my job is to ensure that the children in my community and other communities in Vermont know that we care about them and that, more than anything, we want to replace their sadness with a sense of hope. I want these children to know that their community is taking notice and is doing what it can to ensure they can just simply eat.
Pack 'til They're Back
This back to school season, Feeding America and its nationwide network of food banks are working to make sure that kids don't go hungry over weekends and school holidays. In partnership with C&S Wholesale Grocers, "Pack 'til They're Back" is an awareness campaign to help spread the word about child hunger and Feeding America's BackPack Program.