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‘Especially important to help families’: Kiwanis Club donates winter break meals to Howard County students

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Howard County Public School System and nonprofit organizations around the county have been focused on food insecurity.

The percentage of students who participate in the Free and Reduced Meals program in the county is 23%, according to state data, and that number likely has increased due to the pandemic.

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As winter break approaches for students, the Kiwanis Club of Ellicott City raised money and put together backpacks with 11 days worth of meals for 150 students at two Howard County schools. Schools, which are 100% virtual because of the pandemic, are closed Thursday through Jan. 1.

The Howard County Public School System’s “Grab-N-Go” program has been distributing three meals and a snack at 14 sites throughout the county since schools buildings were shuttered in March because of the pandemic, but there will be no meal service during the break.

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The Kiwanis Club initiative, named Backpacks for Breaks, is in partnership with the school system, and the group of Kiwanis members handed out the backpacks to Cradlerock Elementary and Lake Elkhorn Middle families on Friday.

“It was a great day. The weather was a little chilly, but that didn’t deter people,” said Josh Hiscock, one of the leaders of the initiative and a Kiwanis Club of Ellicott City member. “We had a number of our Kiwanis members come out to help volunteer, and the families who came to receive the backpacks were extremely grateful.”

Each backpack had enough food for the entire winter break, including breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack.

Mary Weaver, a school counselor at Cradlerock, said the need at her school is high. As a Title I school that receives additional federal funding, Cradlerock has one of the school system’s highest FARMs rates, with more than half its population participating in the program.

“It’s been a really wonderful partnership, and we’re grateful for everything they do for our families,” Weaver said.

The 150 backpacks handed out to students this year is more than triple the amount of backpacks made last year in Backpacks for Breaks’ first year. After the Kiwanis Club of Ellicott City gave out around 50 backpacks in 2019, Hiscock said there was an appetite in the group to do more this year.

“We know food insecurity is a problem in the community, and we wanted to do something to make a difference,” said Hiscock, whose wife, Jennifer, is the club’s president. “Our members had a great experience last year, and the school staff and families were so appreciative that it gave us an incentive and desire to do more.”

When Backpacks for Breaks started last year, the group reached out to the school system’s community partnerships office, led by Mary Schiller, and it was decided that Cradlerock and Lake Elkhorn — which also has a FARMs rate of more than 50% — would be the best school communities to benefit from the initiative. Once the backpacks are put together, it’s then up to Weaver and the other school counselors to determine which families need them most.

“We do have many families who rely on Free and Reduced Meals funding, and we have students who benefit from food donations, too,” Weaver said. “During COVID, with all the compounding difficulty, it’s especially important to help families.”

To fund the program, the 30-member Kiwanis Club of Ellicott City accepted donations from community members that totaled $2,600, a grant from the Capital District Kiwanis Foundation and a donation of fresh fruit from Coastal Companies in Laurel.

“We’re very thankful for everyone who donated,” Hiscock said.

Hiscock said the project will continue in the future, and the club — the only Kiwanis chapter in the county — is planning to do it again for spring break in April.

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“I find this project to be very rewarding. Knowing there’s a need in our community, it’s great to address it in a small way,” he said. “With COVID-19 affecting the school year and winter break coming up, we don’t ever want a child to wonder where their next meal is coming from. We want kids to be kids and enjoy their time off from school.”

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