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Weekend meal program to expand

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 6:09 a.m.

INDIANA -- A program to feed hungry Indiana County grade school kids on weekends is expanding in 2012 to include more children although distributions of the food will be occurring less frequently.

The Power Pack program is offered through Indiana County Community Action Program's Food Bank.

Desi Jackson, a food program counselor for the food bank, said a cut in donations to the facility and the expansion of the children served means Power Pack distributions will be conducted twice a month at participating schools instead of once a month, beginning in January.

The fact that more schools have signed up for the program also means that individual school buildings will see a decline in participation in 2012.

For instance, Jackson said, during the 2010-11 school year, 84 children at Saltsburg Elementary School were taking home food on designated Fridays. That number will decline to 30 children in January, she said.

Jackson said the program began in 2009 as a response to complaints from school nurses that some children were showing up for school hungry on Monday mornings. The hunger was accompanied by headaches and dizziness, Jackson said.

"These were children who were getting enough to eat during the weekday through the free or reduced (cost) lunch program in the districts," Jackson said. "The same couldn't be said for Saturdays or Sundays."

According to Blairsville Elementary School Principal Debra Shirley, the free food items provided by Power Pack have "absolutely" made a difference for the children receiving them.

"The children look forward to it," she said. "They're excited."

Lisa Jackson, a reading specialist at Blairsville, said the distributions are made discreetly, on Fridays at the end of the school day, to shield the children from any embarrassment.

Items that are already bundled by building volunteers Tammy Gromley and Joann Kachonik are placed in the students' backpacks or bookbags, the officials said.

The articles of food the students take home to their families include "child-friendly" and "nonperishable items" such as canned ravioli, soups, oatmeal, pudding cups, cereal, light popcorn, macaroni and cheese and granola bars.

Whether boxed or canned, the items are geared to ones the children themselves can open and prepare, said Lisa Jackson.

Six school buildings participated in the program in 2010-11. In addition to Blairsville and Saltsburg schools, there were the W. A. McCreery and Rayne Township elementary schools in the Marion Center Area School District and North Elementary and South Elementary buildings in the Purchase Line School District.

The four elementary schools of the Indiana Area School District -- Ben Franklin, East Pike, Eisenhower and Horace Mann -- are set to come on board in 2012.

With the additions, Desi Jackson said overall student participation will climb from a high of 421, reached in February 2011, to 472 next month.

She indicated the numbers could soar to as many as 1,121 a month in 2012.

Desi Jackson said more contributions of cash or food are needed to grow the program, which is funded mostly by private donations.

The Association of Professional State College University Faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania recently donated $1,250 to the program. Such donations help a lot because "any amount of money can go a long way," Desi Jackson said.

IUP students have organized events with the Power Pack program in mind, she added. The Junior Women's League of Indiana also has come to the aid of the program.

In 2011, the cost for one child per distribution was $5. "That amount gave them 8-12 different items to use during breakfast, lunch, dinner or at snack times," Desi Jackson said.

David Loomis, a journalism professor who chairs the APSCUF Outreach Committee at IUP, said the group likely will continue to try to help the Power Pack program.

"It's hair-raising what is going on out there in terms of hunger. We don't see it teaching middle class kids," but hunger is real, he said.

"Nothing is more basic to academic preparation than a well-nourished student," he said.

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