Oatmeal, crackers, pasta. For many families in Howard County, providing food such as this to kids is simple, but a growing number of students rely on the county school system for nutrition, including over the summer.
That is why the county government on Friday launched the "Weekend Warrior Snack Pack" program, to bridge the nutrition gap many students face when school is out, County Executive Allan Kittleman said at the initiative's kickoff at Stevens Forest Elementary School.
Standing in front of a van loaded with backpacks full of items such as apples, cereal, granola bars and mac and cheese, Kittleman described the new pilot program as part of a larger effort by his office to provide programs for students that will help close the achievement gap and create opportunities, including investments in early childhood education, child mental health, summer food access and career readiness. The larger initiative, called "Achieve 24/7," was also announced at the kickoff.
Weekend Warrior will distribute backpacks of food every Friday through Sept. 1 at Stevens Forest Elementary School and Harper's Choice Middle School. It is being coordinated through the Roving Radish meals program, which sells meal kits of locally sourced food throughout the county and at discounted prices to those in need; the backpacks in Weekend Warrior are free.
The goal is to close the nutrition gap students in the Howard County School System's free weekday summer lunch program may face over the weekend, Director of Strategic Planning and Communications for Howard County Deidre McCabe said.
The offices of the county executive and the interim superintendent for Howard County schools, Michael Martirano, collaborated on the project, and both officials attended the kickoff.
"When a child shows up in school and they do not have the nourishment and the food in their system to be able to concentrate, it truly does affect academic achievement," Martirano said. "So as a county and as a school system we must do everything we can to bridge that gap."
. Roving Radish held a soft opening of the program last week and brought 30 backpacks each to the two locations, all of which were distributed. Friday's event included twice as many backpacks of food, 60 backpacks for each location, Roving Radish market manager James Zoller said.
Zoller said they hope to anticipate the approximate need of students each week in order to bring enough packs of food. He said the program wants to partner with local farmers in the future to have the food donated; currently the food is being purchased from farmers, wholesalers and grocers and is funded by the Department of Community Resources and Services.
Both schools serving as sites for the Weekend Warriors program also host the school system's summer free lunch program, which runs every weekday through Aug. 4. Howard County schools also operates sites at Murray Hill Middle School and Thomas Viaduct Middle School for its summer lunch program, and Martirano said at the kickoff that he hopes to see the program expanded to more sites next summer.
Each backpack is meant to serve one child, and includes food for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack, as well as cooking instructions. The food provided will change week to week, Zoller said.
Backpacks are available for any child under the age of 18, with no application or I.D. required in order to receive one, McCabe said.
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One parent who brought her two children to the event and wished not to be named, said the Weekend Warriors program will help supplement their family's food budget, especially as her kids' appetites continue to grow.