Project SEED tries to help students, families at Fort Crawford Elementary
During the decades that Joanne Cecchi and Ruth Carson worked at New Kensington-Arnold School District, they learned to identify students who didn't get enough to eat at home.
These were the children who rarely missed school on Fridays and Mondays because there weren't always weekend meals at home. These were the children who would sneak leftovers from the cafeteria.
Although it's been a few years since the two educators retired, they believe the problem is only getting worse. Cecchi said she volunteers for the Westmoreland County Food Bank and sees the local families who rely on food donations.
“Until you see the need, you don't really have a sense of how bad it is,” Cecchi said. “It shouldn't happen in this community with the resources we have. It's not Ethiopia.”
This summer, Cecchi and Carson teamed with the Alle-Kiski Valley Senior Citizens Center to create Project SEED, or Something to Eat Every Day. Each Friday during the school year, they plan to offer needy children a bag of nonperishable food to take home and eat over the weekend.
The women want to start the initiative this fall with students at Fort Crawford Elementary School, where a majority of children qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.
If all goes well, eventually they'd like to expand the program throughout the district.
Cecchi and Carson estimate it will cost about $3 per weekend to feed a child, or about $525 per weekend for the 175 kids they believe will qualify for the initiative. They will buy items in bulk like cereal bars, fruit cups and snacks, sandwich crackers and microwaveable meals like macaroni and cheese and soup.
They plan to work with the school district to discretely sign up students and distribute the food, as well as identify students with allergies who may need specialized packages.
“We want to keep it simple, but there are so many variables,” Carson said.
Cecchi said they believe they can run the program for about $18,000 this school year, especially since several businesses have donated items and organizations such as the New Kensington Rotary and the senior center have assisted.
Cecchi and Kathy Mazur, executive director of the senior center, said Project SEED is being run as an offshoot of the center so it can have nonprofit status and be eligible for grants, as well as making donations tax-deductible. It also will allow center participants to serve as volunteers to pack the food.
Cecchi said they hope businesses, organizations and individuals will donate money to help fund the project. They'll accept any amount and will offer sponsorship options.
Cecchi said the initiative has been well received during the presentations she's given: “People in the community are good about responding when there's a need.”
New Kensington-Arnold Superintendent John Pallone confirmed the district is working with the Project SEED organizers, though arrangements haven't been finalized yet.
“We are interested in implementing the program,” Pallone said. “We think it will be a benefit to the district.”
They'd like to start distributing the food as soon as possible after school starts on Wednesday, but Cecchi said it will take a few weeks to get children registered and work out the logistics.
“Every week we wait is another weekend without food for these kids,” she said.
The women teared up as Cecchi recounted the story of a student who last year was found with a messy chunk of lasagna stuffed in a pants pocket with plans to take the pasta home to a sick sibling.
“People think we're talking about a Third World country,” Cecchi said. “And it's three blocks away.
“We want kids to come to school on Monday ready to learn, not ready to eat,” Cecchi said. “Little kids should not be dreading the weekend.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.