Roland Tancotti recalled a visit he made to upstate New York years ago when he found himself sitting outside a school at 7 a.m.
The school had not yet opened, Tancotti said, but already students had lined up and were waiting to get inside.
They were not hungry for knowledge. They were simply hungry.
That's why about five years ago Tancotti started a program through St. Clement Catholic Church that gives food to students in need at Riverview Elementary School.
"I'm a father, grandfather and great-grandfather. I have a very soft spot for kids," said Tancotti, 82, who has four children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. "Children, they can't help themselves."
Tancotti spends five hours each week packing bags with food items for youngsters and delivering them to Riverview Elementary.
Currently, 28 students take advantage of the free food, said Tancotti, a Lakeland resident since 1958.
More than 60 students at Lansdowne Elementary School took advantage of a similar program last year, according to Lansdowne Principal Jane Lichter.
"It's very important," said Lichter, adding that her school will be implementing the program again later this year.
The need to provide food to carry young students through the weekend is especially crucial in this area, said the fifth-year principal, noting that schools in the area have a large number of students who receive free and reduced meals during the week at school.
Last weekend, the students at Riverview took home several packages of cereal, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly and chocolate pudding for dessert, Tancotti said.
The students also get orange and apple juice and some snacks.
"My goal is to make sure they have balanced meals, and I try to vary it from week to week," he said.
He expects the number at Riverview to increase to match the 50 or so who participated last year, once parents return a form to the school that allows their child to claim the food.
Giving food to school children is only one prong of the effort by the Catholic church on Washington Avenue to feed the hungry in the community.
Tim Walsh, operations manager of the church's food pantry, said this year the church will give away more than 220,000 pounds of food, a significant increase from only a few years ago.
The food program to Riverview Elementary will account for about 10,000 pounds of that, he said.
The rest is divided fairly evenly between the church's twice-weekly food distribution and monthly pantry drop, Walsh said.
"About three years ago, we were giving out 20,000 pounds of food a year," he said.
Walsh noted that with an annual budget of around $20,000, "we''ve found better ways to stretch the budget."
A majority of the money, Walsh said, goes toward purchasing food from the Maryland Food Bank.
With its $20,000 budget, Walsh said the food they purchase from the Maryland Food Bank would retail for more than $300,000.
Tancotti said he expects to continue working the program.
"As long as my health stays pretty good, I'll do it," Tancotti said. "I'd hate to see them go hungry."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun