The pandemic revealed the extreme need that kids across the U.S. continue to face even today.
Chris Kuchman, food service director at the Coalinga-Huron Unified School District in California, will never be able to erase this image from her mind.
A fifth grade boy, the eldest of three siblings, would come every Monday to the meal distribution and would struggle carrying the meals that would feed his sisters for the whole week. Sometimes he would have to make multiple trips. Kuchman found a wagon to help him out.
“[There was] joy on his face! He was trying to be the big brother,” she shared. “You could tell they were a family in need… I was so impressed with this child.”
This little boy’s sense of duty towards his family in a time of need speaks about the resiliency and strength of this close-knit community.
The district serves a rural three county area filled with farms, cattle ranches and oil rigs. Like in many other rural communities, many families have to drive almost an hour to find the closest supermarket and the economic opportunities are limited. But like the little boy, people look after each other.
“I'm very proud of my community,” said Kuchman. “I was raised here. I know what it's like to go through all the trials children have growing up here.”
Even as we learn to live with the pandemic and kids don’t have to stay home, the need continues for many families.
Lori Villanueva, superintendent at the district, recalls a student that did something and got suspended for a day. He still showed up the next day around lunchtime explaining he was hungry.
“It hurts to know that kids are hungry,” said Villanueva. “I know as an educator that unless some basic needs are being met for that child: Food, clothing, shelter, love. Without those things, there's no way they can learn… We are the base for kids to get two of their meals a day.”
Kuchman understood this, but many of the students were not participating in the breakfast program. Of the 1300 kids in the Coalinga elementary schools, only 300 were eating breakfast. In Huron, it was 45 out of 750. Something wasn’t working.
No Kid Hungry created a space where Kuchman and Villanueva could connect with other districts in California like the Rialto Unified School District. They got tips about how to implement a successful breakfast program. The solution was breakfast in the classroom.
Kuchman was concerned of the potential backlash, but supported by Villanueva, they decided to start the program right away. They talked to everybody who was going to be involved, from the school board, principals, teachers to custodians and cafeteria workers.
“Yeah. It's a little bit more work for my staff. It's a little bit more work for the teachers, but everybody was engaged,” explained Kuchman, talking about the buy-in from people in the district.
The results of the program were immediate. Coalinga went from serving breakfast to 300 kids to over 1000 on the first day. In Huron, it went from 45 to 336 kids.
“It was a lot of work. It's a lot more stress, but it's 100% worth it. When you go from 300 meals to a thousand meals that is worth it in every way,” said Villanueva.
With funding from No Kid Hungry, the Coalinga-Huron Unified School District purchased essential equipment like a walk-in cooler, trash bags and cans to ensure breakfast in the classroom was possible. But it doesn’t stop there, No Kid Hungry staff has also offered technical support through the process to ensure a successful program.
“[It’s] someone that we can call to get ideas, someone that can tell us what's going on out there, helping us with trainings, showing us how other schools are doing it. One way Chris got her ladies on board was to take them to a school doing it,” explained Villanueva about the support from No Kid Hungry staff.
Villanueva and Kuchman expressed their gratitude to the donors and supporters who made this possible and encouraged people to continue their support.
“If people are gonna put their money anywhere, this is a very worthy ‘cause because again, if kids aren't hungry, they're gonna learn. They're gonna be more successful,” said Villanueva.