You probably know someone who quietly goes hungry. She is the single parent who works in your office but skips dinner so her children can eat. He is the tired little boy who sits next to your child at school and struggles to pay attention in class.
Hunger hurts everyone, but it is especially devastating for children because it deprives them of more than just food. On empty stomachs, kids do not have the energy to focus, engage, learn, and grow. Good nutrition is important for establishing a good foundation that has long-term implications for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity.
Poverty and childhood hunger go hand-in-hand. Often the only reliable food many children receive is through school meal programs. According to Collier County Public Schools, 64.29 percent of school children receive free or reduced-price meals. In Collier County, all children are eligible for a free breakfast and for those who are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch at school, for many children, these two meals represent their entire diet. There have been efforts to respond to the need of childhood hunger; all out-of-school programs offer children a hot meal, and many summer programs also provide meals. The Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida maintains relationships with thirty-nine organizations and non-profit agencies who distribute food to Collier County’s most vulnerable populations, including thirty-one that focus on children’s needs.
Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap 2019 study reports that 151,610 Southwest Floridians lack consistent access to nutritious food. Of these residents, 36,120 are in Collier County and include 12,400 children.
Affectionately called “Lunch Boxes of Love,” this initiative provides nutritious food to children and their families who struggle with food insecurity—the fear of not knowing where their next meal will come from. This innovative approach to food access enables deliveries to remote and needy sections of Collier County utilizing large refrigerated trucks. Since the inception of this initiative, over 8 million meals have been provided to children and families through mobile pantry distributions in underserved communities such as Golden Gate & Immokalee through the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida.
Brighter Bites creates communities of health by increasing access to fresh produce in underserved areas. In partnership with for-product distributors and other nonprofits, Brighter Bites delivers fresh food and nutritional education to children and families, with the goal of improving eating habits, curbing obesity, and other long-term health benefits.
Brighter Bites has instituted an evidence-based program that promotes education on a variety of topics including healthy food choices and physical activity. Nutrition education is taught during in-class lessons as well as well as afterschool hours and during food distributions. Educational handbooks (in multiple languages) are provided to families to encourage the continuation of learning at home.
The mobile food distribution is only one part of a deliberate and strategic plan to ensure children and families have increased capacity and access to nutritious food. Other aspects of the initiative include strategies such as school-based food pantries and increasing the capacity of current food distribution sites with plans of retro-fitting current space to allow for perishable food storage all with the goal to eliminate barriers for children with food insecurity. Partner organizations include Brighter Bites, the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida and Meals of Hope. Through packing events, Meals of Hope helps to provide food for the children of Collier County. Their fortified meals are highly nutritious, containing up to 12 grams of protein and 21 different vitamins and minerals. Once meals are packed, they are donated to the Harry Chapin Food Bank for immediate distribution in Southwest Florida and Collier County Public Schools. Meals of Hope’s packing program has been easily integrated into the educational components of our Collier County’s Public School System. Students participate in food packing days that align with the Common Core Educational Standards. Providing after school educational programs for children in grades 1-12 along with the opportunity of volunteerism, empathy towards others and overall understanding of the needs in the community are just a few of the educational components that allows this collaboration to be so successful.