by Dennis Dalman
About five years ago, Sartell students had begun telling their parents about seeing some classmates taking food from garbage cans in lunch-room cafeterias.
That is because some students were scrounging food they would be able to eat on hungry weekends.
That sad fact is what motivated many concerned parents to start a local non-profit organization called Feeding Area Children Together.
At first, as a pilot program, the plan was to feed 50 students with healthy, ready-to-eat meals for the weekends when children weren’t in school to receive meals. The nutritious meals were packed in paper bags, then given to the children who needed them.
Children who face food insecurity receive subsidized breakfasts and lunches at schools when schools are in session, but some of those same children go hungry during weekends.
Those who organized FACT soon learned when students arrived at schools Monday mornings, they had less hunger pains and were eager and ready to learn.
The FACT program was a success, but according to its current chairperson, Zurya Anjum, a long-time Sartell resident, FACT needs a financial boost. She told the Sartell-St. Stephen Newsleader that the desperate need for food has outgrown the program’s resources.
Since FACT began five years ago, the number of children needing the program has grown to 510 students each week. They include students from Sartell-St. Stephen, Sauk Rapids/Rice and St. Cloud school districts.
“It may surprise you to learn that food insecurity is right around us and not a problem for just Third World countries,” said FACT Chairperson Anjum. “With the global pandemic and food-supply shortages, things have been very tough, but we need to grow the number of kids we feed. At this point, with shipping and food prices significantly higher, we can no longer budget to feed the 510 kids we will have for the next school year.”
Anjum called it a heartbreaking decision.
“We will need to cut back on the number of kids we feed or make food bags smaller,” she said. “It breaks our hearts to take away food from a kid.”
For each child in need, it costs $6 to provide a FACT Pack for a child for one weekend. That equates to $216 per child for a school year.
“Every year, enrollment numbers continue to grow,” Anjum said. “Even if we do not add any kids this coming year, we do not want to take food away from any (current) kids. Please help us with our mission to feed these kids.”
It’s estimated in central Minnesota, one in five children suffers from food insecurity and occasional hunger, not knowing for sure if or when that next meal will happen.
FACT serves 12 schools in the greater St. Cloud area –Sartell-St. Stephen District 748, St. Cloud District 742 and Sauk Rapids/Rice District 47.
Students eligible for the program are those in grades K through 8. FACT Packs are one-gallon-sized bags that contain a non-perishable breakfast, lunch and nutritional snacks for those days when schools are not in session. The packs are placed discreetly into the backpack of each participating student on Friday or the last day of school before a break.
The foods are carefully selected for nutritious value (fruits, vegetables, protein). Examples are cereals, oatmeal, mac-and-cheese, tuna salad, crackers, cheese sticks, sunflower kernels, apple sauce and raisins.
There are also FACT pantries in each school that can provide shelf-stable food for students and families.
FACT Break Boxes are filled with enough foods to last for extended school breaks of one week in length or longer.
Parents must fill out an enrollment form, which can be obtained in the school’s office or online at the FACT website, which is stcloudfact.org.
People can also donate to the program on that website. FACT is not a government program. It is funded solely by tax-deductible donations from individuals, foundations and businesses. A network of volunteers is also vital for the ongoing success of FACT. Volunteer opportunities include helping pack the food packs, counting inventory, loading and unloading food supplies, hosting donation drives, grant-writing, marketing and website development. To find out more, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another way to contribute is to designate Central Minnesota FACT as a designated charity on Amazon Smile so a portion of each purchase will help fund FACT.
On the FACT website, there are lists of the kinds of non-perishable and frozen foods and comfort items that can be donated to the program.
Corporate sponsorships are also an option. Current local sponsors include Celebration Lutheran Church, Sartell; Coborn’s; Walmart; Jules’ Bistro, St. Cloud; and many more.
On the website is a video of testimony from parents and school officials on what an impressive impact the FACT program is having on children: increased food security, renewed confidence and hope and even improvements in school performance.
Those who would like to donate by mail can send a check to Feeding Area Children Together; 2625 Clearwater Road, Suite 140; St. Cloud, MN 56301.