A program to feed hungry teens in Billings public schools has doubled in size in its first five months.
The teen pantry program began in November at Senior, West and Skyview high schools in Billings, said Kendall Coombs, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who helped organize it. It now has spread to the Career Center, a vocational high school in Billings, as well as to Riverside and Castle Rock middle schools.
"They're giving out about 200 pounds of food a week," Coombs said. "Each school is a little different. Some help only three to five kids a week and others do close to 25."
Coombs, 24, is part of the city of Billings' Metro VISTA Project that allows local nonprofits to apply for volunteer help to combat poverty and homelessness in the community. Coombs has been working with Ginny Mermel, chairwoman of the Billings Public Schools Health Advisory Council, on food programs for students of all ages up through high school.
Ensuring students have enough to eat is a key to academic success, Mermel said.
"Chronic hunger is one of the key risk factors for dropping out of school," she said. "For one thing, kids don't do well in school when they're constantly hungry because they're so preoccupied with the physical discomfort and the emotional stress of trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from."
In 2009, Mermel kicked off a program, with a seed grant from the Montana Food Bank Network, to provide food-filled backpacks to elementary students. Backpacks are offered to students who qualify in the district's eight Title I schools.
Teachers, counselors and principals identify chronically hungry students who would benefit from getting a backpack to take home on weekends and school holidays. The backpacks contain two small entrees, two pieces of fruit, two cereal containers, two containers of 100 percent fruit juices and shelf-stable milk.
Originally, 520 backpack meals went out every weekend, Mermel said, but as of April that number was down to 269, she said. And though they meet the needs of younger students, older students have bigger appetites.
"A teenager could suck one of those down for a snack," Mermel said. "And so trying to get those kids enough food was a real challenge."
Last September, Coombs, who began working with Mermel in July, attended a Montana Food Security Council meeting in Helena. It was there she learned about the teen pantry program, already put to use by the Great Falls Community Food Bank.
Coombs tweaked the program to make it work in Billings, and since then she's been coordinating with the schools to get it up and running.
"Kendall's done an absolutely wonderful job," Mermel said. "I can't say enough good things about her creativity, her work ethic."
Senior High's pantry is the busiest, Coombs said. About 50 percent of the food is provided by the Salvation Army, which is part of the food bank network.
Community organizations and individuals also have contributed to the pantry project, she said.
"The schools will do their own little food drives, and different student organizations will raise food or money to help support them, because they like to take care of their own," Coombs said.
The backpack program relies on financial donations, Mermel added, to keep it going. That comes from a variety of organizations, small grants and individuals who contribute.
The long-term goal with both programs is to help people become self-sufficient, Mermel said. Counselors connect families of children aided by the backpacks with safety net service providers to help them become self-sufficient.
For older students, the program's motto, modified from one used by the food bank network, says it all, she said.
"Our goal is to keep kids fed, fit and ready to learn so they can be adults who are ready to earn," she said.
"For us as a community it makes sense," Mermel said. "We have less poverty later on, and we have a better trained work force."