$150/yr. or $12.50/mo. feeds an elementary student.
$360/yr. or $30/mo. feeds a middle or high school student.
By JON MARK BEILUE
“Real hunger feels like having your insides crushed all together.” — Amarillo middle school student
Suzanne Brantley stood at one end of a long table with an assembly line of people on each side in front of her. There’s eight tables, about 25 per table.
That’s 200 volunteers working furiously at 5:45 p.m. on a Tuesday at a converted warehouse at 2406 S.W. Third Ave. Brantley is here often each week, but for most of the 200, there’s a waiting list for weekly volunteer slots.
“My husband (Homer) and I were volunteering for America’s Promise at Margaret Wills (Elementary),” she said. “Pho was a little second-grader, and one day he said, ‘No food, no food. What I do? What I do?’ He was just in a panic.”
The look of fear on that face eventually connected the Brantleys to Snack Pak 4 Kids, which has tapped into one of the underreported and often overlooked problems in Amarillo and beyond — childhood hunger.
“The refrigerator is just as empty as your stomach. I know this because I was once hungry. No food except my school meals.” — Amarillo middle school student
Last week marked the end of the fifth school year for Snack Pak 4 Kids. Dyron Howell, an oncology pharmaceutical sales representative, saw the need in 2010. It began on Sept. 2 of that year, weekend sack lunches on Friday sent to 10 children at Will Rogers Elementary.
Today? Snack Pak’s growth is a testament to the overwhelming need and communities, churches and corporations that are fighting a hidden but very real problem.
More than 3,700 weekend sack lunches for about 50 schools in Amarillo ISD are readied each week, as are more than 6,000 when 34 other school districts in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles are included.
Snack Shaks are now in middle school and high schools, which are online and run by students. Ten Amarillo churches are now involved. Texas Cattle Feeders and Southwest Dairy Farmers have bought in, and corporations like Kellogg’s, Kraft and ConAgra Foods are about to jump on board.
Snack Pak has stretched beyond the region. It began as a pilot program in San Antonio three years ago, and now it’s in seven schools in three of that city’s school districts — Northeast, Alamo Heights and San Antonio ISD.
“I would eat no more than half my plate and give it to my younger siblings. My parents would cry because they felt like they let us down.” — Amarillo middle school student
“The people here have got behind the theory that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry, and we’ve made it personal,” Howell said. “The other thing is we’re seeing a difference. So we’re not only providing a missing piece, which is food for the weekend, but teachers are seeing a tangible difference in the classroom.”
The hearty sack lunches were chosen for the weekend to fill a crucial gap for those who either sign up or have a teacher recommend them for the Snack Pak program. Needy students can at least get free or reduced weekday meals during the school day.
The sack lunches are delivered to schools on Wednesday or Thursday, and students pick them up on Friday as they leave.
“If you eat over the weekend, you come back ready to learn,” Howell said. “We’ve surveyed teachers the last three years, and two-thirds in AISD say they’ve seen improved academic performance because of the program. Among middle school teachers, 98 percent want it back. That says a lot.
“The reason, and it’s been stated many times because it’s true, is you can’t learn on an empty stomach. We’re trying to fix a third of the week where many have nothing viable and they come on Monday ready to learn.”
“During lunch, a friend of mine eats everything on his foam plate. He then asks everyone at table range if they’re going to eat their apple, orange or whatever assorted fruit we have that day. This kid’s hunger is hunger at its finest, or at its worst.” — Amarillo middle school student
On a Tuesday in late May, the parking lot in front of the 21,500-square-foot Snack Pak warehouse was full with more than 50 cars. Those who volunteered on this night signed up in February to produce about 4,500 sack lunches in just more than an hour.
Since January, there have been about 1,700 volunteers and more than 3,000 since the start of the school year.
“We let each volunteer make it their time, their moment,” Howell said. “You have businesses re-
engaging with employees, churches making it a spiritual and purposeful thing, kids’ sports team where the lesson is to think beyond themselves. Walk around the room and each person has a story.”
As summer approaches, Snack Pak will still feed 2,000 with help with distribution and pickup from schools hosting summer school, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Maverick Club, Wesley Community Church, City Church and High Plains Food Bank.
Though more than 3,700 lunches go out weekly in the school year at AISD, the challenge in late August will be to do more. There are four remaining schools that are not sponsored — Palo Duro, and the middle schools of Houston, Bowie and Allen.
Howell estimates that’s 600 students who are “food insecure” over the weekend. Cost estimated to sponsor those four schools is $190,000.
“It’s not a small investment,” said Howell. “When you make the kind of investment we have, you have to think big picture and long-term so you can sustain it.”
Five years of growth for Snack Pak 4 Kids, and more still to go.
“What does hunger mean to me? Well, I know how it feels and what you go through. It’s not pretty.” — Amarillo middle school student
Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com 806-345-3318. His “Out of the Beilue” video series appears on amarillo.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.