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Backpacks of food a lifeline for Baltimore's needy students

At John Rurah Elementary School, pre-Kindergarten student Jesse McLe and his brother, fourth grader Hunter McLe, receive food from Sandie Nagel, who has organizaed a distribution program.
At John Rurah Elementary School, pre-Kindergarten student Jesse McLe and his brother, fourth grader Hunter McLe, receive food from Sandie Nagel, who has organizaed a distribution program. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Sandie Nagel once helped run a major local charity, and she has always used its core philosophy in her own volunteer work: Go where the need is greatest.

She has led book drives for underfunded schools. She has collected coats and gloves for distribution to at-risk families. She worked for Meals on Wheels for 35 years.

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But even Nagel was unaware of one gaping need among Baltimore's children.

Last winter, the 78-year-old Pikesville resident learned that nearly 3,000 students in the city school system are homeless — and that most in the group must struggle to find food on weekends during the school year.

"Here are these wonderful children living among us, right under our noses, and they're on the edge of starvation two days a week," she said. "How could you not do something?"

So she did.

For the past 10 months, Nagel, a former teacher and journalist, has spearheaded the Miriam Lodge Weekend Backpacks of Food for Homeless Kids program, which provides nutritious foods for children experiencing homelessness and their loved ones at the end of every school week.

She and about a dozen volunteers buy a hearty selection of easily prepared food items, pack them neatly in rucksacks or ziplock bags, and hand the hefty parcels to a carefully selected group of children on Friday afternoons.

The program provides about 40 of the packs per week, each containing enough in the way of protein, vegetables, fruits, soups and more to feed four people for two days.

On a recent Friday afternoon, children between 4 and 14 shouldered the bundles at John Ruhrah Elementary and Middle School in Greektown, one of three schools the program currently serves.

It felt a little Christmas-like as Nagel, a diminutive firebrand with a commanding voice who spent 25 years teaching at Krieger Schechter Day School in Pikesville, asked the noisy group what items they liked the most.

One fifth-grader mentioned apples and milk, saying they help keep him strong for soccer, his favorite sport.

An eighth-grader, described by staffers as a star student, said she only had bread to eat on weekends before the program started, and that her family uses all the food each week.

And a bright-eyed kindergartner said he loves the canned soup, then staggered a bit under the weight of his pack as he walked away.

Each recipient qualifies as homeless under the Baltimore City Public School system's definition of the term or is otherwise identified by social workers as in need of food.

Students are classified as homeless under a range of conditions, according to Lori Pleeter, a social worker at John Ruhrah.

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Some have no fixed address and move frequently from place to place. Others go to shelters at night or reside in temporary public assistance housing — "welfare hotels" in the vernacular — or live in parks or on the streets.

They rely largely on the school system for food, Pleeter says, but between a final snack on Friday afternoon and breakfast Monday mornings, many must do without.

Food banks, churches and synagogues cover some of the gap during holidays with their generous charity programs, Nagel says.

Her operation is a local take on a patchwork national phenomenon.

Nagel got the idea while watching an episode of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" that showcased a young man who'd started something he called "Backpacks of Food For Homeless Children" in another state.

She scoured the Internet for more information and learned there are similar programs around the country, including a handful in the Baltimore area. But there was no overarching organization to offer guidance.

It didn't matter.

"'We're going to do this,'" her husband of 60 years, Fred, recalled his wife telling him. "When she says that, it's best not to get in the way. I just offer to help."

"My friends refer to him as 'St. Fred,'" Nagel said.

She developed a business model on the fly.

The first week, family and friends helped her buy 18 black backpacks and enough Beefaroni, ramen, powdered milk and boxed soup to stuff them all. She loaded up the lot, drove it to Tench Tilghman Elementary and Middle School near Johns Hopkins Hospital and distributed it to a select group.

She wanted to expand, and when she found she couldn't raise money without incorporating as a nonprofit, Miriam Lodge, the Jewish women's charitable organization she once led, stepped up, agreeing to handle donations. The ShopRite grocery chain pledged to match donations dollar for dollar.

Chimes, an organization that provides job training and other resources for developmentally disabled adults, agreed to supply workers to fill the packs. H&S Bakery discounts bread once a month.

And when two sisters-in-law, Leslie Monfred and Margery Braver, offered their services as volunteers, Nagel realized she had an operation on her hands.

"It takes a village, but I've learned it only takes one person to start the village," she said.

Monfred and Braver find one phase of the process especially inspiring. When volunteers deliver the food en masse to Chimes every Thursday morning, a team of adult clients does all the packing, assembly-line style.

"These are amazing human beings," Braver said. "They're engaged and productive. ... As they work, they just keep saying, 'This is for the kids, this is for the kids.'"

For cost and efficiency reasons, Nagel has mostly transitioned from using backpacks to employing clear sealable plastic bags. On Fridays, volunteers get the bundles to the schools, where social workers and teachers, having worked up the lists of recipients, help hand them out.

Nagel has managed to bring costs down since March, but each pack runs about $10 per week, bringing total expenses to about $1,600 per month.

Grants from such places as the Gulton Foundation in New Jersey have helped, and Nagel, who once wrote a society column for the Baltimore Jewish Times, has held several fundraisers and described the program in an interview on WYPR radio.

"We're feeding about 150 children a week," Nagel said. "It's just a small dent in the problem, but it's a start. We're very much dependent on funding."

Her immediate goal is to supply at least 100 packs a week by September, enough to feed 400 children. In the long term, she says, she hopes to provide 500 per week, for 2,000 recipients.

The program intends to add at least one more school as of Jan. 1 — Collington Square Elementary and Middle in Broadway East, which reports a population of 50 homeless children — and more by the spring.

On distribution day at John Ruhrah, 17 children crowded around Nagel as she doled out encouragement, sought suggestions and laughed loudly and often.

At one point, she grew serious and addressed the group.

"If ever you are hungry and your family needs more food, you tell Ms. Pleeter. And you know what we'll do? We'll get more food for you," she said.

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Mary Donnelly, principal at John Ruhrah, said she believes the real number of kids at risk is underestimated because many consider it embarrassing to admit their degree of need.

One student "didn't tell us for a long time that she had no food," Donnelly said. For weeks, the girl accepted the packs anonymously, but eventually grew comfortable enough to claim her bundle.

"This program is great," she said. "We have some kids who are getting just what they need."

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