SARASOTA/DESOTO COUNTIES – Approximately 30 million children in the United States rely on free and reduced-price school meals every day; that figure was pre-pandemic, in 2019, and has certainly risen since then. In 2022, 22.5% of students across the U.S. were eligible for free school meals, up from 20.8% in 2021; in Sarasota, that number hovers around 50% and, in DeSoto County, 100% of students participate.
To help address the issue of child hunger, at 14 schools in Sarasota and DeSoto counties, All Faiths Food Bank provides nutritional assistance through school pantries. The School Pantry Program, part of the food bank’s Children & Families initiative, helps set up food pantries that are conveniently located on-site at schools for families of students in need. The pantries complement school breakfast and lunch programs, providing access to food for children and their families after the school day has ended.
In 2022, All Faiths provided food for nearly 7,000 individuals – including nearly 2,440 students – through school pantries.
All Faiths has added a new partner in its fight against child hunger: on February 6, a pantry was opened at the Easterseals Academy in north Sarasota; the school serves students in K-12 who are challenged by developmental, physical, learning, and mild behavioral disabilities as well as autism. This location is expected to serve 55 families over the course of the school year; the pantry is open during parent pick-up biweekly, on Mondays.
“I was out there for the first school pantry and met the great volunteers and key staff, and saw their enthusiasm to share the fresh vegetables and food staples; there was excitement in the air as families received this very special gift from All Faiths Food Bank,” said Tom Waters, president & CEO of Easterseals Southwest Florida. “Our families were tremendously grateful as was Chef Garfield, who coordinates our on-site food program. We look forward to continuing – and possibly expanding – this powerful partnership in the future!”
School pantries distribute fresh fruit and vegetables as well as non-perishable food and, at some pantries and when available, a variety of meats. Some schools provide a dedicated space for the pantry where families can walk through and pick out their food; others are All Faiths’ mobile markets, distributing pre-packaged foods via a drive-thru format at the school during student pick-up.
“Children who experience hunger will be more likely to suffer from chronic health problems – sometimes lifelong, experience developmental impairments, are at higher risk of poor school performance and, thus, are less likely to have opportunities for career success and financial stability down the road,” said All Faiths CEO Sandra Frank. “We are grateful to the Food & Nutrition Services teams at Sarasota County and DeSoto County Schools who are such wonderful partners in helping us to feed children in need. And we’re looking forward to our collaboration with Easterseals Southwest Florida, which will enable us to expand our reach and serve new families.”
According to Feeding America, in Florida, more than 2.25 million people are facing hunger, and 660,500 of those are children (2020 numbers). Of households receiving SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits, over 38% of them have children.
In addition to school pantries, All Faiths Food Bank also offers the BackPack Program at 81 schools and child-focused programs; this effort provides “backpacks” full of nutritious food to help students through the weekend or when school is on break. In 2022, more than 11,000 children received backpacks. Additionally, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Campaign Against Summer Hunger, which reaches more than 35,000 students and siblings each year during the summer, when children lose access to meals at school.
For more about local efforts to fight child hunger, visit allfaithsfoodbank.org.
About All Faiths Food Bank
All Faiths Food Bank is the only food bank and largest hunger relief organization in Sarasota and DeSoto counties, providing millions of meals each year in collaboration with nearly 200 agencies and programs throughout the community. All Faiths works not only to end hunger today but also strives to end hunger – forever – by helping families and individuals gain long-term food security, enjoy better health outcomes, and achieve self-sufficiency. All Faiths is rated 4 stars by Charity Navigator and is a member of the Feeding America and Feeding Florida networks. For more information visit allfaithsfoodbank.org.