Last week, Fair Share Education Fund released a report showing eligibility for free or reduced price school lunches is growing faster in suburbs like Arlington than in cities. Although the report focused on 2010-2011, an Arlington Food Assistance Center spokeswoman confirmed the organization still saw a huge increase in Arlington families using its services for the 2014 fiscal year, which ended on June 30.
AFAC served 1,400 families each week as of July 2013, and that bumped up to 2,000 families each week by this summer, which is a 40 percent increase. That equals about 5,000 individuals every week, of which 36 percent are children.
AFAC staff believes two factors contributing to the increase were last year’s government shutdown and the reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
“Last year in November, the SNAP cuts went into effect and we immediately saw an increase in the number of families coming to us,” said AFAC Director of Development Joy Myers. “The average reduction per family was $36 per month. That may not seem like a lot, but when you’re scraping to get by and every penny counts and you’re $36 short, you’re going to try to find all your resources. When they get food from us, they can take that money and pay rent or gas and electric bills, or buy medicine.”
One way AFAC is trying to combat the growing food insecurity for Arlington’s children is by expanding its Backpack Buddies program, which began serving homeless children a few years ago. This year, the pilot program will open up to children in need at four elementary schools — Barcroft, Barrett, Randolph and Carlin Springs.
Kids enrolled in the program receive food on Fridays to take home and eat on Saturday and Sunday when they’re away from school. The kids can choose to take the pre-packaged goods home in their own backpacks, or borrow one and return it on Monday. The program is anonymous to prevent embarrassing children who are signed up. AFAC volunteers drop off the food and backpacks to school cafeteria workers and that’s where kids registered with the program can pick up their weekend supplies.
“We’re trying to de-stigmatize it as much as possible for kids to get the food that they need,” said Myers. “We’re also hoping because there are so many people struggling with food insecurity who aren’t speaking out, we hope this is a way for families to hear about our other services. We don’t want anybody in Arlington going hungry.”
Children at the four schools will take home an information packet when school starts, and their parents have to register through the Arlington Public Schools Office of Food and Nutrition Services.
Although AFAC always can use monetary and food donations, it especially could use help with Backpack Buddies because the pre-packaged, microwaveable kids’ meals are more expensive than other donated items. To donate, volunteer or set up a food drive, log on to the AFAC website for more information.