A little boy kept asking those in charge of Donegan Elementary School’s Homework Club when snack-time would be.
When the snacks were passed out, he took one peanut butter cracker out of the plastic wrap and put the rest away.
When Carolina Hernandez, the director of Lehigh University’s Community Service Office, asked him what was going on, he said that he was saving the rest so his mom could have dinner that night.
Hunger is a daily problem for children and their families in the Lehigh Valley. At Donegan Elementary School and Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem, about 90 percent of students are on the free or reduced lunch program. This program is only available to families below the poverty line. The 10 percent of students that are not on the program are often just above the poverty line or their families could not fill out the yearly application due to language barriers.
Hunger is caused, and exacerbated, by problems like homelessness. According to a 2007 study by National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in a given year 3.5 million people will experience homelessness nationally. In the Lehigh Valley, 2,400 people were homeless in 2010, according to the Lehigh Valley Shelter Census.
The low wage gap keeps families from being able to improve their situation.
The average South Bethlehem resident makes $14,600 a year, Hernandez said, and with the average rent being $800 a month, it leaves almost no room for food or childcare.
“It is an imperfect storm of circumstances, a terrible series of situations that all lend and bleed into one another,” Hernandez said.
Schools and local organizations, like universities and churches, have a multitude of service programs in place to address the hunger and homelessness issues. Sometimes this is in the form of continued donations to a food pantry, and other times it is specific events like a Thanksgiving dinner hosted at the school.
To help with the issue of families serving healthy food to their children, many programs have been put in place in local schools to teach children and families about how to cook nutritional and low-cost food.
Rosa Carides-Hof, the community school coordinator at Donegan, said many students take advantage of the free breakfast offered in the mornings and snacks in the after school program. Some of the poorest children also are able to receive a free dinner a few times a week.
These meals do more than supplement the food students receive outside of school.
“Most students, if they are not coming to our school hungry, it is because they were at the child care center that fed them,” said Ashley Sciora, a community school coordinator at Paxinosa Elementary School in Easton.
For many students, the free snack or dinner is the last food they will receive until returning to school the next day. Erika Davis, the community school coordinator at Cleveland Elementary School in Allentown, said weekends or extended breaks from school are particularly difficult.
To help with this problem, the Backpack Buddies program was started. At Cleveland Elementary and several other Lehigh Valley schools, a backpack filled with food for the family is sent home with children over the weekend or long break.
“We tell them to keep it a secret so that other kids don’t get jealous,” Davis said. “They light up (when they get the food) and they think they are in a secret club.”
Only five students of the 284 at Cleveland Elementary are able to be in the backpack buddies program. The program is limited due to funding.
Similarly, in Donegan Elementary School, 25 students are part of the Backpack Buddies program, said Carides-Hof.
“At least we are able to make a difference here or there,” Davis said.
Alicia Creazzo, the community school coordinator for Broughal Middle School, said she is working on bringing the Backpack Buddies program there. Meetings with Dining Services were being organized to discuss details and logistics of the program.
With the wage gap, homelessness often results for local families. Seven hundred and eighty of the 2,400 homeless in the Lehigh Valley were children, or 32 percent. Half of the children living in homeless shelters are under the age of five. Hernandez said 2010 is the last year that the data is available from the Lehigh Valley Shelter Census, but the problem has escalated and the numbers are not going to be smaller for 2014.
Struggles like homelessness often prevent families from concentrating on preparing meals with healthy foods.
“(Families have) so many other things to worry about that food is last on the list,” Davis said. “Healthy food is just so much more expensive and out of reach. There are not many grocery stores (in Allentown), there are mini marts without fresh food or meat.”
Cooking Club at Broughal is a weekly program through the Lehigh Community Service Office where volunteers teach realistic and healthy recipes to students. Fraternity or sorority chapters often donate the food and run the program, which has spaces for 20 students. There are 570 students in Broughal.
Creazzo said Broughal is also looking to offer classes to parents that include a component of cooking with their child so that both can learn to cook healthy food.
“But, it’s still a matter of getting food into the home,” Creazzo said.