By Srianthi Perera

Not every child in Gilbert looks forward to the weekend as a time for fun and frivolity.

Some approach it with a dread because they may go hungry.

That’s why Chandler-based Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank began a weekend backpack food program in area schools.

“Meals to Grow” provides a backpack filled with five pounds of snacks and meals for those students and their families.

The program began in fall 2015 with delivery of 80 weekly backpacks to schools. Due to demand, the number has now increased to 300 and shows every sign of increasing.

The backpacks are provided at the beginning of the school year; subsequent food donations come in grocery bags and students use the backpacks to transport the food home.

About eight to 12 volunteers show up to pack, transport and organize everything, but more are necessary.

“We’ve been shocked at how fast it’s  wanting to grow,” said Kim Corder, Meals to Grow coordinator. “We just have some parameters that’s holding us back from growing bigger. I feel like it’s going to be 1,500 backpacks a week in a couple of years.”

In addition, Matthew’s Crossing has established food closets at the Pecos and Williams campuses of Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Canyon Valley High in Gilbert Public Schools, Westwood High in Mesa Public Schools and Hamilton High in Chandler Unified School District.

The nonprofit is also in the process of establishing food closets at Williams Field High in the Higley Unified School District and Tempe High. Plans call for setting up at least five more in East Valley high schools during the year, Corder said.

The food closets typically stock dry goods and staples such as pasta, bread, beans, rice, peanut butter and nutrition bars. They are made available to students with no questions asked.

“Matthews Crossing provides the weekend food for families,” said Aaron Harris, Higley schools director of program compliance. “They don’t have to qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning falling under the poverty lines. As long as they express the need, then we’ll make the request to the food bank and they’ll deliver the food to us.”

According to East Valley Partnership, the East Valley’s median annual household income is $62,587, and 36 percent of its residents have a college degree.

Data USA, the free platform of government data, reports that the median household income in Gilbert is $82,424, and the income for Chandler is $75,562.

Nineteen percent – or one out of five – of the 12,523 Higley students’ families qualify for the federal lunch program, and an average of 57 backpacks are being requested weekly, according to Harris.

“Affluent families who may have experienced a loss of job, loss of income, could contact the school office and say we’d like additional support, we’d like a backpack for the weekend,” he said. “That’s kind of the beauty of it; it’s there for all.”

The stories are similar at Gilbert Public Schools.

Susan Cardena has been coordinating student services for 14 years, working with students in transition and providing outreach and assistance to the school’s families. The district, which has 36,000 students, receives about 130 backpacks each week from Matthew’s Crossing, in addition to food from other charities.

A total of 547 GPS students of all ages received food assistance from the Chandler food bank during the second quarter of this school year; some are identified as homeless students or students in need.

But homeless students are not the only ones needing help with food and nutrition, Cardena said.

“In any neighborhood, there are many families that struggle to keep up with everything,” she said. “Unfortunately, sometimes those families are hit the hardest in providing the basic needs for their children and themselves. In more affluent communities, that oftentimes will get overseen, but the need is still there, no matter the community.”

There are pockets of need “in pretty much every school,” said Jan Terhune, executive director of Matthew’s Crossing.

A teacher in Hamilton High School, located in Chandler’s affluent Ocotillo neighborhood, reportedly told the food bank that she receives about 30 requests a day for food, water bottles or a granola bar.

“It can be lack of time or parents didn’t have food to provide,” Terhune said. “It can be both.”

A social worker in Gilbert had related the story of a family that moved here from another state and lived in their car until the father got a job and could secure an apartment. The social worker enrolled the two children in the backpack meals program and that fed them during the weekends.

“There are a lot of stories out there that we’re hearing, and working with the schools has been really eye-opening,” Corder said. “These liaisons… go above and beyond to try and provide things for their students in need.”

Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank in Chandler was established by Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church in 2001, grew to capacity and became independent of the church in 2005.

Today, with help from about 90 weekly volunteers, it provides food assistance to 6,000 individuals in the East Valley each month.

Besides Meals to Grow, it also runs emergency food box and holiday food box programs and the Read to Grow book distribution program.

The food bank is only one of many organizations that provide food to area schools.

United Food Bank, AZ Brain Food, Produce on Wheels Without Waste and Central Christian Church also help with various donations.

For some time, Chandler-Gilbert Community College worked with St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix and Produce on Wheels.

“But then we wanted to do more, because we knew that there was a need,” said Michael Greene, director of student life and leadership. “Not just a one-time produce distribution. We realized that more and more students are hungry.

“We know that they’re not going to be as successful at school if they are hungry and they can’t reach their basic needs.”

Greene said the community college was made aware of a survey of basic student needs by Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016. The effort built on a similar survey of 10 community colleges during the 2014-2015 academic year; in all, 70 institutions from 24 states participated.

One of the colleges surveyed was CGCC, where 44 percent of students answered “yes” to the statement “The food that I bought just didn’t last and I didn’t have enough money to get more;” 58 percent said “I couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals;” and 43 percent stated “yes” when asked if they ever cut the size of meals or skip them because there wasn’t enough money for food.

Asked whether he was surprised by the results, Greene said, “Some people assume that because we’re in Chandler, Gilbert, Arizona that there’s not that much need as, for example, Central Phoenix. But if you were to meet with, and talk to, our officers on financial aid, they’ll tell you that there’s a huge need.

“They’re giving out lots of money to students who are struggling to come to college,” he added.

The HOPE Lab had found that 27 percent of students reported very low food security at the college. “This means they were hungry within the last 30 days,” Greene noted.

Despite the high need, Greene reported that it has been slow to get students to overcome pride and use the service.

Last October, 14 students used supplies from the Coyote Cupboard, while 39 students and 23 students utilized it in November and December, respectively. Students are asked for identification only to track numbers and share them with Matthew’s Crossing, he said.

Matthew’s Crossing writes grants each year in its never-ending quest to stock its shelves. Last year, it received $5,000 from the town of Gilbert and is in the process of applying for more.

While the donation was welcome, the food bank said the town’s assistance was not in keeping with the demand.

Each May, the town spearheads a food drive for United Food Bank called Gilbert Feeding Families. In 2017, the drive yielded donations to provide nearly 38,000 meals. Food assistance is also provided by the Open Arms Care Center and Azcend, which is mostly geared toward seniors.

More recently, Midwest Food Bank established its Arizona division in Gilbert; it serves more than 100 food pantries in the area.

In 2015, a social services survey declared that the town had just one homeless person.

“Gilbert is desperately trying to hang on to this innocence, the small town, wealthy labels,” Corder said. “What that equates to is a lack of resources for food assistance.”

Corder and Terhune want to promote awareness of what they have learned about student hunger.

“The fact that more children go to bed hungry in Arizona (1 in 4), than adults (1 in 5) or seniors (1 in 7), got us thinking about developing a four-week, social awareness campaign/curriculum that is focused on nutrition and hunger and its direct impact on a student’s ability to learn,” Corder said.

Harris is thankful to the food bank for mitigating and alleviating the Higley school community’s needs.

“When they are hungry, what are they thinking about? Where is the next meal coming from? They are not thinking about the academics,” he said.

Not only are students now receiving breakfast and lunch at the school, they return home on Fridays with a well-balanced meal in the bag, he added.

The program director doesn’t see an end in sight to the situation, however. “I actually see it expanding,” he said.

Neither do the food bank staffers, who plan to publicize their findings with presentations at East Valley schools.

“We believe this will further our effort to unite our community in the fight against hunger,” Corder said.