Gene Steer has seen many children come to school hungry throughout his 22 years working as a teacher in the Tempe Elementary School District. The worst time for most of those students: Monday morning.
The gap between the lunch they ate at school Friday and the breakfast provided to them Monday left many of his students ravenous by the time they returned to school after the weekend.
Steer knew, as many teachers do, that his students were not getting enough to eat at home. Then one evening, two years ago, he found a solution for that problem while watching television.
He saw a story about a teacher who didn’t want to see her students go hungry and so partnered with a local food bank for donations that could be sent home with them. That’s when the idea formed to start the Weekend Backpack program.
In the Tempe district, 74 percent of students participate in the lunch program, which indicates a need for meals, and 66 percent of students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, an indicator of the number of families living in poverty, said Linda Rider, the district’s director of nutritional services.
“Some of our students, we notice, are very hungry on Monday mornings at breakfast, or even at lunch,” Rider said. “This indicates to us that some of these students are not getting much to eat over the weekend.”
To address that need, Steer solicited several organizations for donations, and got lots of offers, but at first it was not quite what he was looking for.
“People offered gift cards or money, but I said ‘I want food. You got food. That’s what I need.’”
Safeway stores then stepped forward.
The program has gone from serving 50 students at Holdeman Elementary School, where Steer teaches, to 350 students at four Tempe schools, including McKemy and Gililland middle schools and Scales Elementary School. He and other volunteers like Isela Blanc have filled 7,000 backpacks with food and personal hygiene products, all donated by Safeway grocery stores.
Blanc said the schools find the families usually through observations of teachers or from other families who have used the program and know someone who needs it.
“It’s had such a positive effect on attendance, on testing,” Steer said. “When kids aren’t hungry they just learn better.”
Steer will retire from Tempe in less than two weeks, but the district has offered him a part-time job, just a few hours each week, to stay on and help keep the program going.
“This is such an important thing,” he said. “We do not want this program to die.”