Josh Sanders, 33, sat in a chair in the corner of the cafeteria at Featherbed Lane Elementary, still in his work clothes, as his two daughters bounced from table to table, putting juice and snacks in a bag to take home.
A landscaper, Sanders doesn't always make ends meet. This year's bad winter meant he didn't get work on many days — or a paycheck. His wife recently got a job in medical billing, but that is still not enough. The family has no permanent home and jumps from hotel to hotel. Food is sometimes scarce.
Once a month, the family gets help from his kids' Baltimore County school. Featherbed Lane is among nearly 220 schools in the Baltimore area that have opened food pantries to try to combat hunger and what nutritional experts call "food insecurity" — as well as the attendants' learning and behavioral problems.
Once located mostly in churches or nonprofit centers, food pantries have proliferated in schools. Eight years ago, only 10 schools participated in the food pantry program run by the Maryland Food Bank, and all of them were in Baltimore City. Now the program has expanded to surrounding counties, underscoring the fact that poverty is not just an urban issue.
Sanders doesn't mind missing a meal, but it breaks his heart to see his girls — Aaliyah, 8, and Morghan, 7 — go hungry.
"I just worry about them," said Sanders. "I can go without. They need to eat. This is a lifesaver."
Researchers concluded long ago that hunger is a major obstacle to learning. Studies have found that kids who don't get enough to eat suffer from stomach aches and other health issues, have difficulty concentrating, and miss days of school. Teachers have learned to ask a cranky or groggy student if they have eaten that morning.
The federally funded free and reduced lunch program operates around the premise that kids do better in school if nutritional needs are met.
"We try to do whatever we can because we know if a child is hungry, they are not going to hear anything the teacher is saying and their only concern is: 'When am I going to lunch,' " said Carlillian Thompson, principal at Robert W. Coleman Elementary in Northwest Baltimore, which runs a pantry once a week.
Now researchers and child advocates understand that sometimes the entire family must be helped. A child may get two meals at school, but nothing in the evenings and on weekends. Moreover, the food they eat may not be nutritious. School administrators say food pantries are particularly busy after students have been out of school for holidays or snow days.
Programs to deliver meals to kids during the summer months or to send food-filled backpacks home with kids on weekends have helped to fill gaps when children and their families go without. Food pantries in schools add to that safety net.
Schools are an ideal location for pantries because they are accessible and safe, according to anti-hunger advocates. Many schools, particularly in low-income communities, already play an expanded role by providing a range of social services to families in need.
"We are bringing the food and the access to food to the families," said Deborah Flateman, Maryland Food Bank's president and CEO.
Each school pantry operates differently, based on their facilities, Flateman said. Some have set aside a classroom; others store food in a closet and distribute it as needed. Other schools have designated periodic days when families can get food.
At Renaissance Academy in Upton/Druid Heights, Antwon Cooper tries to make food available from the pantry whenever needed. He finds breakfast bars for tired and hungry children. He has packed a box of food and delivered it to a family who called seeking help on a weekend.
Sometimes Cooper, the school's parent and community liaison, finds during home visits that households contain little food. So he returns with groceries from the food pantry.
"My job is to help these students become better citizens," Cooper said. "Part of that is not having them worry about where they are going to get their next meal. If anybody should be a resource for these students and their families, it's the school."
The number of families classified by researchers as "food insecure" — meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food — grew when the recession hit and has not improved markedly since then.
In Maryland, 1 in 5 children, or about 260,000, struggle with food insecurity, the Maryland Food Bank found. Of those, 30,650 live in Baltimore. About 30 percent of Baltimore families are considered food insecure, according Children's HealthWatch, a network of pediatricians, public health researchers and policy experts.
The impact of hunger and food insecurity is not just physiological, said Maureen Black, a professor in the pediatrics department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Children also suffer when parents are so concerned about how to pay for the next meal that they neglect some of their other needs.
"Parents who are worried and anxious are less available," Black said. "They are less in tuned to how that child did on that spelling test."
Parents who struggle to make ends meet say the school-based food pantries help make life easier.
Rosa Lundy was one of the first to arrive at the Robert W. Coleman pantry recently, joining more than two dozen other families lined up outside on a day so bitterly cold that tiny hail balls and snow smacked their faces.
The families come every Friday, even in the worst of weather. Many don't have enough food to last them through the weekend.
"It helps tremendously," Lundy said. She lives with several grandchildren and their parents, who work low-paying jobs.
Once a week, the school converts a room typically used for dance class into a makeshift food pantry. Teachers and staff pass out bags packed with applesauce, canned vegetables, yogurt and other foods. On this recent Friday, families even took home a fresh turkey.
School food banks also have become a resource for the entire community.
Nearly three dozen people lined up outside the cafeteria at Featherbed Lane before its monthly pantry opened recently. Among them were a retired nurse and a school teacher aide who live on fixed incomes. They said that after paying bills, they don't always have enough left for food. They are grateful for the food bank.
"My pantry is empty," said Christine Wallace, 72, the retired nurse. "Literally empty."
Inside the cafeteria, Madeline Randle, dressed in a long black skirt and apron, scurried about filling bags. Each family would get three bags that day. One filled with meat, another produce and the last dessert.
"We got a lot of stuff today," Randle said when the pantry finally opened for business. "Cucumber, carrots, we even got cabbage."
Randle works as Featherbed's cafeteria manager, and she sees first hand when kids don't get enough to eat.
"It makes me smile to see kids eating," she said. "So many don't get enough."