Not knowing where your next meal is coming from is a major source of anxiety for children growing up in homes that experts now call “food-insecure.” These families struggle with a lack of access to nutritious, affordable food. A new study done in Illinois shows that giving children food at school on Friday to get them through the weekend can improve their attendance.
Feeding America’s “BackPack Program” is a nationwide initiative to provide backpacks full of easy-to-prepare meals for children in food-insecure households. The bags are given to students on Fridays, and are filled with enough food to feed them until Monday. A study published in the Journal of Hunger and Developmental Nutrition found that students who receive the backpacks have improved attendance rates on Fridays. In addition to providing nutrition, adding even one day of the week where they are given extra food for home helps improve the amount of time they devote to education.
The study followed 444 students from 16 schools in east central Illinois. Of these students, 289 were identified as food-insecure and received bags from the BackPack program. Perfect attendance rates on Fridays for the students who received backpacks went up to 26 percent, similar to the 27 percent perfect attendance rate of students in the control group they were compared to. Children who received weekend meal backpacks had fewer absences on Fridays than on any other school days.
Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., the first author of the study and director of the University of Illinois Family Resiliency Center, commented on the success of the program. “Given that children in the BackPack program were more likely to miss school than children in the comparison group, we consider this effect noteworthy for academic engagement. Even if these children attend just a few more days per school year, over time that may improve their academic progress,” Dr. Fiese said.
To deliver the program, the Eastern Illinois Food Bank identified schools most in need of food assistance and educators identified families who would most benefit. The food bank provided training to the schools on how to identify food-insecure families. A school administrator, social worker or other staff member was appointed to administer the BackPack program to those students.
The authors of the study explained that it is important to identify food insecurity as a separate issue from poverty. Families can be going through job changes or temporary hardship and, although they haven’t been identified as living under the poverty level, may be unable to provide healthy meals for their family. Food insecurity may also affect families not currently receiving public assistance.
“In some cases, food insecurity may be associated with being a single parent with a low-paying job, or with being a married couple who had a recent job loss and have multiple mouths to feed,” explained Dr. Fiese. “Thus the simple act of distributing food on a Friday may have educational benefits for a particularly vulnerable group of children.”
You can consult the Feeding America website to find out whether or not your local food bank participates in the BackPack Program, or to donate toward feeding more hungry kids.