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Project SEED expands to New Kensington-Arnold district

| Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, 12:26 a.m.

Project SEED's roots will spread in the New Kensington-Arnold School District this fall.

The district consolidated schools and closed Fort Crawford Elementary School, where the program distributed weekend food packages for children. So Project SEED's organizers plan to expand to Martin and H.D. Berkey elementary schools this year.

They're inviting all children, from Martin's preschoolers to the second-graders at Berkey, to participate.

Project SEED — an acronym for Something to Eat Every Day — is the brainchild of retired district administrators Joanne Cecchi and Ruth Carson.

Recalling students who had trouble focusing on school because they were hungry, the women wanted to make sure the district's youngest children had healthy food to eat during the weekend.

The pilot program last school year provided sacks of nonperishable food every Friday to about 150 students in Fort Crawford, which was the school that had a large percentage of students who qualified for federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunches.

Each bag typically provided enough food for a child to have two weekend breakfasts and two lunches. Provisions may include cereal bars, fruit cups and snacks, sandwich crackers and microwavable meals such as macaroni and cheese and soup.

Cecchi said Martin and H.D. Berkey families have signed up about 205 kids so far this school year.

That amounts to nearly 40 percent of the students at the two schools.

“We keep adding people every day,” she said.

They're planning to feed about 40 percent more children this year, which means they're trying to raise more money.

Cecchi said it cost about $3 per child per weekend last year, requiring a total of about $18,000.

They estimate they'll need nearly $30,000 this school year, especially because they anticipate increasing food costs will slightly raise their cost per child, and they now give extra food on long weekends.

Cecchi said they're off to a good start financially. They raised about $24,000 last year, so they have some money carried over.

They received a $5,000 grant from the Lions of Pennsylvania Foundation and hope a few more grants will come through.

This year, they'd like to attract more community partners — businesses, organizations and other groups that would sponsor a fundraiser, food drive or other benefit.

Cecchi said a host of groups assisted them last year: “It really has been a community project.”

They welcome volunteers to help bag the food every Wednesday at the Alle-Kiski Valley Center for Active Adults in New Kensington.

Carson said they have a regular crew of volunteers from the center who form an assembly line to quickly pack the food.

She's not worried about them getting bogged down by the additional bags needed this year: “Our volunteers will handle it without batting an eye.”

Cecchi said New Kensington public works employees again will pick up the food on Friday mornings and distribute it to the schools. Classroom teachers will put the food into the backpacks of participating children.

The food typically is distributed at times when the students aren't in the classrooms to avoid drawing attention to the participants.

“We don't want kids singled out by standing in line for free food,” Cecchi said.

Although Cecchi was worried about not including third-graders in the distribution this year — they attend the Roy A. Hunt Elementary School — she was pleased to learn the district is participating in a federal program that provides free breakfasts and lunches to all students, regardless of income.

The district also participates in a free after-school feeding program for any students who can get to Roy A. Hunt or Valley Junior-Senior High School.

Cecchi hopes that means more children are getting enough to eat.

And it also may mean Project SEED gets more donations.

She recently encountered a parent who felt guilty that her children are receiving a free school lunch for which she normally would have paid. Instead, she plans to donate what she would have spent on school lunches to Project SEED.

Tom Rocchi, principal at H.D. Berkey, said the program worked well last year at Fort Crawford, where he also was principal. He's looking forward to it reaching more students this year.

“It's a wonderful program,” he said. “I don't know how they get all this ready. Every Friday, like clockwork, they have bags of food here.”

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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