Helen M. Knight Elementary is seeking donations of easy-to-prepare foods, including fresh fruit and vegetables that travel well. [Courtesy photo]

Over half of the students who attend Helen M. Knight Elementary School qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. For some of those students, the breakfast and lunch they receive at the school may be the only meals they can depend on getting every day. But the staff at HMK is hoping to change that through the Food for Kids Backpack Program.

First-grade teacher Sarah Henderson came up with the idea after seeing some of her students regularly coming to school hungry.

“I would notice kids taking food out of the garbage in the lunchroom,” she said. “Sometimes they’d ask for food off other kids’ trays, and then hoard it. I just thought, that’s not OK.”

Henderson began using her own money to provide snacks for her students every day.

“I couldn’t sustain it on my own,” she said. “And I knew there were other students in need. I wanted to reach more kids.”

That’s when Henderson came up with the idea of an in-school food bank.

“It’s a great way to get kids helping kids,” she said.

Henderson’s fellow first-grade teachers have embraced the project, and it has become the community service project for the first-grade block.

“I saw a need, and no one else was doing anything about it,” she said.

The program will, in essence, be an ongoing food drive. Every Friday, volunteers from the school’s Title 1 program and the Moab Rotary Club take the donations that have been received throughout the week and divvy them up into red grocery bags. Those bags are then delivered to the classrooms, where teachers put them in the backpacks of the students. The goal is to send enough food with each student to provide them with meals for the entire week.

“We feed kids breakfast and lunch, but we can’t feed them dinner,” HMK Principal Taryn Kay said. “This is an effort to make sure that kids have three meals a day.”

With many parents working two or three jobs, Kay said that some students might not have anyone at home to fix them dinner at night.

“Their refrigerators might be empty or broken,” she said. “Or they might not have a refrigerator.”

Henderson said that’s why the group is looking for food that is easy to prepare, so that students can make it themselves. The school has asked for donations of foods like soup, Easy Mac, canned chili and fruit cups. Henderson said that fresh fruit and vegetables that travel well, such as Clementine oranges and baby carrots, will also be gladly accepted.

Kay said she hopes that the program will eventually be able to expand to offer more fresh options.

“We know that canned food isn’t the healthiest,” she said. “But it’s better than nothing.”

In addition to food, Kay said the group is also accepting cash donations and can openers to send home with students who might not have access to one.

Currently, Kay said, students are only referred to the program when a staff member feels they would benefit from it. “There’s no application process or anything,” she said.

“We have about 60 kids that have been identified so far,” Henderson said, adding that she’s received referrals from teachers as well as the BEACON Afterschool Program. “I’m sure the number will go up as the program gets more established.”

The names of students who have been referred to the program are kept anonymous, to ensure their privacy.

“The main thing is maintaining their integrity,” Henderson said.

Overall, Kay said she hopes the program is helpful for the students who receive the food.

“Our intent isn’t to offend anyone,” she said. “We don’t want parents to feel bad. We just want to make sure that kids have food.”

School seeks donations of easy-to-prepare foods

Food and monetary donations can be dropped off at HMK during school hours. Anyone who is interested in volunteering time to help fill the backpacks can contact Sarah Henderson at 435-719-4779, or via email at hendersons@grandschools.org.