CINCINNATI -- On a bitter cold morning a week before Christmas, the Roll Hill Community Center bustled with volunteers.
Men and women in an assembly line snapped open paper sacks, packed them with boxes of food topped off with two fresh oranges and slipped them into plastic bags with handles, completing 946 in all.
By 2:30 that afternoon, kids raced from the nearby Roll Hill School home to the Villages at Roll Hill carrying those same sacks filled with the macaroni and cheese, shredded wheat, and cereal bars that will help fill their stomachs over Cincinnati Public Schools’ two-week winter recess.
“I want to eat it all!” a smiling 5-year-old Ajeena Smith said as she walked home with her mother, Aneeja Smith, and grandmother, Stephanie Blackford.
“It does help out,” Aneeja Smith said, especially at the end of the month when the family runs low on federal food stamp benefits.
“When things get low, you’ve got something to fall back on,” Blackford added.
That’s the whole idea behind Childhood Food Solutions , the Cincinnati nonprofit that sent sacks of food home with nearly 4,000 children at six Cincinnati elementary schools before the winter recess.
The two-week break can be a perilous time for families who rely on food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
It’s difficult for many families to stretch benefits until the end of the month – more difficult since a reduction in SNAP took effect Nov. 1, said Tony Fairhead, executive director of Childhood Food Solutions.
Filling The SNAP Gap
For low-income students who rely on the free breakfasts and lunches they get at school, end-of-the-month school breaks can be especially tough.
Childhood Food Solutions began sending weekend sacks of food home with students at Ethel M. Taylor Academy in September 2007 to fill what Fairhead calls the “hunger gaps.” The organization added Roll Hill School in March 2008 and sends bigger sacks home for longer breaks.
Childhood Food Solutions has focused on the 45225 ZIP code, which includes Millvale, South Cumminsville and North Fairmount.
That area has the highest percentage of households receiving SNAP benefits in the Tri-State, according to the latest US Census data. Of the 590 households in that census tract, 81.2 percent get government assistance through the SNAP program.
And at least 90 percent of the students at the two elementary schools in the area qualify for free breakfast and lunch, Fairhead said.
But Fairhead and Lisa Hyde-Hill, one of the nonprofit’s co-founders, don’t view their mission as feeding hungry children.
“If you say you’re going to feed a hungry child, it’s too late,” Fairhead said.
Stopping Hunger Before It Starts
The goal, he said, is to prevent hunger in the first place.
A pharmacist by training, Fairhead counts the calories in the sacks of food sent home with the kids, hoping each bag will at least replace the 1,000 calories the students typically get from their school breakfasts and lunches.
For this winter break, the organization distributed some 10,000-calorie sacks of food and some with 8,000 calories worth. Scores of volunteers at multiple locations packed the bags.
Fairhead knows that many of the children who get the bags share their food with their parents or older siblings. So Childhood Food Solutions tries to include food that is filling and can be shared, such as the boxes of graham crackers, macaroni and cheese and packages of cheese crackers with cheese spread in the middle.
Green BEAN Delivery also donated 2,800 oranges and 1,800 bananas for the winter break distribution in collaboration with 91.7 WVXU ’s winter fund drive and a food drive organized by Rock Bottom Brewery and several area churches.
“It’s a year-round project for us,” said Aris Yowell, Green BEAN’s marketing director. “The fresh fruit really increases the nutritional value of the sacks.”
Childhood Food Solutions has data to show the sacks are making a difference for the schools whose students receive them.
Keira Brown, 11, left, and Artez Brown, 9, right, walk home with their mom Ciara Brown and their blue, 8000-calorie sacks of food prepared by Childhood Food Solutions and volunteers at the Roll Hill Community Center on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO
Evidence That Food Makes A Difference
In 2007, Fairhead said, only 30 percent of third-grade students at Roll Hill and Ethel M. Taylor were reading at or above proficiency.
By 2012, after several years of the supplemental food, nearly 70 percent of third-graders were reading at or above a proficient level – a 134 percent improvement.
Of course, the extra food isn’t the only reason reading has improved, said Shelley Mokas, Roll Hill School’s resource coordinator. Schools also have focused on new instructional methods to improve
But there’s no doubt that hungry children have a tough time learning, she said, adding that teachers notice the difference.
“The teachers think of the students as their own,” Mokas said. “So when their babies are fed and come in, they can tell. And when they haven’t been fed, they can tell.”
Fairhead believes there are broader community benefits, too.
The 45225 ZIP code had nearly 80 premature births per year from 2006 to 2007, he said. That number decreased to fewer than 60 per year from 2010 to 2013, a 32 percent improvement after a few years of extra food from Childhood Food Solutions.
Fairhead thinks that could be, in part, because the cereal bars that the nonprofit includes in the sacks have 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of folate, a vitamin doctors encourage pregnant women to take for the healthy development of their babies.
He figures kids have been sharing those cereal bars with their moms or older sisters who are pregnant.
‘I Got My Bag, Aunty!’
There’s no doubt food and nutrition are an important part of a community’s health, said Elaine Wolter, a retired public health nurse who is helping Childhood Food Solutions expand into Price Hill.
“People don’t understand the importance of food on mortality,” Wolter said. “If we don’t impact it at the preschool level, we’re lost.”
The families of children who receive Childhood Food Solutions’ sacks of food see the impact.
Amber Brown’s 9-year-old nephew is a fourth-grader at Roll Hill School. The boy stays with her after school until his mom gets home from work, and he loves his bags, Brown said.
“He runs to my house and says, ‘I got my bag, Aunty! I got my bag!’” she said.
The first time Brown’s sister saw her son’s sack of food, she was so grateful she cried.
“She knows that when the food starts to run out, she doesn’t have to worry about him,” Brown said.
Photos and audio slideshow by WCPO photojournalist Kareem Elgazzar. Multimedia Producer Libby Duebber contributed to this story.
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may .