‘Bites in a Bag’ helps fight child hunger; Bristol program sends food home for the weekend

BRISTOL — An estimated 13 million American kids go hungry. In Vermont, it’s estimated that 13 percent of all households are food insecure — leaving about 20,000 youngsters under the age of 18 without enough on their plates.
In Bristol, a program called Bites in a Bag is tackling child hunger one bag of snacks at a time.
Each Friday, 40 kids at Bristol Elementary School take home healthy snacks to help tide them through the weekend in food insecure households.
“For some kids, there’s not very much food at home,” said Bristol teacher Kathy Smith.
The program is a cooperative venture of three organizations: Bristol’s Have a Heart Food Shelf runs and funds the program, Bristol Elementary packs and distributes the bags, and Addison Northeast Supervisory Union’s Child Nutrition Services handles ordering.
The program started about five years ago, when the Have a Heart Food Shelf board began discussing Vermont Foodbank’s Backpack Program, said board member Jill Kopel, an organic farmer and a lead Bites in a Bag organizer. The group inquired to see if it could become part of that existing program, but the Backpack Program was limited to the 18 schools then enrolled.
So Have a Heart organizers discussed what a similar, homegrown program might look like. The answer was Bites in a Bag.
While some programs focus on what Kopel described as a “kind of Chef Boyardee approach,” sending home microwavable pre-packaged meals, the Bristol group wanted to focus on fresh, healthy snacks.
“We wanted to do something that was more in line with our district’s value of nutrition for kids and getting healthy foods into kids. So we made it into this healthy snack for the weekend program. That’s how it kind of evolved. The school was very open to it,” said Kopel. “It’s been such a nice partnership with the school and with the people who are in charge of the cafeteria.”
A typical weekend snack bag includes eight to nine healthy snack items, said Kopel. These might include:
•  A fresh raw vegetable, like carrots or celery.
•  Two fresh fruits, like an apple, orange or even kiwi.
•  A container of yogurt that is frozen ahead of time so it stays at the proper temperature.
•  String cheese. “We try to do string cheese every week. It’s kind of a favorite thing, and they are kind of indestructible,” Kopel noted.
•  A selection of two to three healthy carbohydrates like pretzels, goldfish crackers or popcorn.
Sometimes the string cheese or yogurt is replaced by cheese and crackers.
Bites in a Bag organizers work closely with Bristol Elementary Food Service Manager Bertha Allen and with ANESU School Nutrition Services Director Kathy Alexander to see both what’s available to order for a healthy snack and what’s available that kids will want to eat.
“The people who choose the Bites in a Bag are very good about choosing healthy, nutritious food that kids will eat,” observed Smith, who’s had a teacher’s eye view on the program since its inception and on kids’ eating habits over a 26-year career in the classroom.
“That’s kind of a tricky thing to do,” she continued. “At our school right now we’re really pushing fruits and vegetables — and that’s a great idea and the fruits are wonderful. But a lot of the vegetables they won’t eat.”
The focus on fresh food (plus the snack carbs) also helps round out the kinds of foods a family might pick up at Have a Heart or other food shelves, which tend to be nonperishable, observed Kopel.
Organizers also wanted “it to be a cool thing. We thought we should give them a bag of stuff that they were psyched to take home. So it would be like, ‘Oh sweet, my bag on Friday’s here,’” she said.
The school and Bites in a Bag collaborate on distributing the bags. The school identifies the students. And every Friday a small group of volunteers gather at Bristol Elementary and pack the snacks into brown paper lunch bags. These then go to the classrooms.
Initially said Kopel there was a lot of concern about anonymity, but over the years the school has developed a straightforward, respectful culture around the Friday snack bags that makes distribution not a big deal.
“Our kids are really nonjudgmental,” said Smith. “The bags come in. I either put them on the little counter by their coats or on the floor. The kids see that they’re there, and they grab them and put them in their backpacks. It’s so easy. And the other kids are like ‘Oh, what did you get?’ There’s no ‘Well how come you get them and I don’t!’”
Indeed the snacks are so popular that one tweak the school asked for this fall was that the bags be packed and distributed closer to the end of the school day because kids were starting to snack while still at school.
Kopel said the program has consistently served about 40 kids a year. The program costs about $3,000 to $3,500 a year, Kopel said; that comes to around $150 a week or to around $3.50 to $4.25 a bag.
Two years ago, buoyed by its success at Bristol Elementary, Bites in a Bag expanded its program to Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro. That program split off on its own this year and is now self-organizing and self-sustaining.
Have a Heart relies on donations to support the Bites in a Bag program. And each year, Bites in a Bag holds a gingerbread house-making fundraiser. This year’s fundraiser will be on Dec. 10 (see box for more information).
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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