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By Mike McKibbin

Achildhood nutrition aid program in Jefferson County elementary schools survived some growing pains and is gearing up for the upcoming school year.

Community Table, formerly the Arvada Community Food Bank, 8555 W. 57th Ave. in Arvada, oversees the Feeding the Future backpack program.

Community Table is a Colorado nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation formed in 1982 by Inter-Church ARMS (Arvada Resources for Mind and Spirit) to provide food, financial, physical help and volunteers for qualified community members in Wheat Ridge and Arvada.

The organization’s 2016-17 annual report, noted the first extensive evaluation of the Feeding the Future program in 11 years, led to several changes, including hiring Rocky Baldassare as its first paid program manager.

Doris Stipech is a Community Table board member and volunteers to help Feeding the Future through the Arvada Jefferson Kiwanis Club. She said the change from a volunteer-managed program to one with a paid manager was somewhat controversial.

“We wanted to make sure we connected with as many kids and their families as we could and have them get nutritious snacks, and those they will eat,” Stipech said. “The board wanted to make sure we were feeding the child and we can encourage families to go to the Community Table food bank if they need other help.”

Some resistance from parents and volunteers resulted, she added, “But the cost just wasn’t sustainable. We had too much waste and we felt we were under-utilizing the food bank.”

Baldassare explained the program had been sending home canned goods and food that needed to be cooked on the stove for family meals.

“(The board) felt it was not the kids’ job to feed the family; it should be the family feeding the kids,” he added. “The packs were weighing 7 to 10 lbs., so it didn't make sense to have 5- and 6-year-olds carry those home. And many of the kids would take the stuff out they didn’t want to eat anyway.”

Now, each Friday during the school year, each eligible child in three Wheat Ridge and eight Arvada elementary schools – Allendale, Arvada K-8, Fitzmorris, Foster, Kullerstrand, Lawrence, Pennington, Secrest, Stevens, Swanson and Thomson – takes home a pack with peanut butter and jelly pouches, 1 percent shelf-stable milk, cereal pouches, bread, snacks, fruit cups and apples or oranges. Baldassare said each pack has an average cost of $3. To receive the weekend food backpack, parents must register with their participating school.

Homeless children at Fremont, Parr, Peck, Vanderhoof, Campbell and Weber have also participated. Since January 2015, the program has served children enrolled in Jefferson County’s two Head Start locations, where food pantries with non-perishable food are maintained.

Free, Reduced Lunch Participation Is High

The program provides food to more than 1,700 children each weekend during the school year. The schools are Title 1 schools that have a high percentage of children on the free and reduced lunch program, although Baldassare said Community Table does not ask applicants if they are in that program, nor is it a requirement.

The Colorado Department of Education reported 31 percent of Jefferson County pre-kindergarten to high school students received free and reduced lunches in the 2017-18 school year. For some elementary schools participating in the Feeding the Future program, free and reduced lunch participation was much higher: Kullerstrand and Stevens both had nearly 81 percent participation, Pennington close to 87 percent, while Thomson was just under 70 percent.

Kristi Hoekstra is a grant-funded family engagement liaison at Thomson Elementary School and coordinates the Feeding the Future program at the school.

“It's a wonderful program,” she said. “We have a large population of families that come and go because they move and no matter when they do, the program always helps every single student in need.”

Hoekstra also maintains a food pantry to help families of Thomson students with other food needs.

Baldassare said around 150 volunteers are involved in the program, which starts this year the week of Sept. 3 and ends the week of May 13, 2019.

The Jefferson County School District operates a free breakfast and lunch summer food service program for all students up to 18 years old. Lunch meals for adults cost  $4.15.

Baldassare said the backpack program’s $80,000 annual budget is funded through grants and donations, including city government, churches, schools, civic organizations, businesses and private citizens.

The annual Feed the Future 5K Race raises funds for the Wheat Ridge schools in the program. Last year, 68 runners helped raise over $3,400.

This year's race is scheduled for 9 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 8, at Crown Hill Park & Wildlife Preserve, 9505 W. 32nd Ave. in Wheat Ridge. Registration fees are $35 for adults, $15 for children from 4 to 17 years of age, and $95 for families. Registration is online (search “Feed the Future 5K”) through Aug. 26 and race-day registration begins at 8 a.m. in the south parking lot of Wheat Ridge High School. Sponsored by Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Wheat Ridge, live music and games will be featured before and after the race.

Good Food = Good Students, Better Learning

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s extension.org website noted studies suggest better nutrition helps students learn, have fewer absences, their behavior improves and there are fewer classroom disruptions.

“Good nutrition helps students show up at school prepared to learn,” according to the website. “Because improvements in nutrition make students healthier, students are likely to have fewer absences and attend class more frequently. Studies show that malnutrition leads to behavior problems and that sugar has a negative impact on child behavior.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website noted research shows a strong connection between healthy behaviors and academic performance: grades, standardized tests, graduation rates and attendance. Healthy students are better learners, and academic achievement usually leads to a lifetime of health benefits. However, youth risk behaviors such as physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, tobacco, alcohol and other drug use are consistently linked to poor grades and test scores and lower educational attainment, the website noted.