A weekend's worth of food for a needy family in Commerce City fills a bag awaiting pickup.

The one meal homeless kids can count on is a school lunch five days a week – and sometimes breakfast, though it’s not always easy for them to get to school in time to eat it.

Now, a program that’s expanding into school districts across the state is helping to ensure those students have food over the weekend as well.

The Weekend Backpack Food Program provides thousands of homeless students in nine school districts with supplies of non-perishable food for the weekend, in hopes they’ll come back to school Monday morning fed and ready to learn.

“While they’re in school, they can be stabilized and ready to learn,” said Dana Scott, state coordinator for the Education of Children and Homeless Youth at the Colorado Department of Education, which is administering the program. “But what happens when they leave Friday and don’t come back until Monday? We’ve had students come back hungry, falling asleep in class. Many hadn’t eaten adequately over the weekend. This is problematic.”

Statewide, the numbers of homeless youngsters enrolled in Colorado schools has grown dramatically in recent years. In 2003, the first year for which data is available, some 7,000 homeless students were enrolled across the state. Last year, it was up to 15,834. Numbers aren’t yet available for the current school year, but Scott anticipates it may be close to 20,000.

The situation isn’t limited to the inner city. The district with the greatest number of homeless students is Jefferson County, which last year enrolled 2,088 homeless youngsters, versus 1,567 in Denver Public Schools. Scott expects homeless enrollment for the current school year to hit 2,400 in Jeffco, and 1,800 in Denver.

Elsewhere, homeless enrollment was more than 2,300 last year in the six Adams County school districts, nearly 1,000 in the seven Arapahoe County districts, more than 2,000 in the two Boulder County school districts, nearly 1,500 in the 15 El Paso County County school districts, 864 in the Larimer County districts, nearly 500 in the Mesa County school districts, 1,452 in Pueblo County, 580 in Weld County. Even Fort Morgan enrolled 172 homeless youths last year, up from 50 the year before.

“We’re just seeing big increases across the board,” said Scott. “And the tricky piece about the suburbs is that service delivery isn’t the same. In Denver, there’s a plan to end homelessness. There are just more options than in the suburbs.”

Concern for the increasing numbers of students experiencing “food instability” led some parents at Denver’s Montclair Elementary School last year to contact the state and offer to help. At the time, they were giving out snack packs to homeless students at Montclair – packs filled with Ramen noodles and other microwavable and foods easily prepared even without access to a kitchen.

That program got a huge boost when Whole Foods donated 10 tons of groceries to DPS for use by homeless students. That permitted the schools to provide beefier, more nutritious meals. Every backpack now contains spaghetti and sauce, macaroni and cheese, fresh bread, peanut butter and jelly, tuna, oatmeal, soup and canned vegetables. And there’s enough food to feed the whole family, not just the child.

By last year, other schools districts were also beginning to partner with local food banks to create similar food backpack programs. Then in February, the Qwest Foundation gave a $50,000 donation to launch new or expand existing food backpack programs. The Qwest money is now funding programs in nine districts through the end of 2010. Those districts are Adams School Districts 50 (Westminster), 14 (Commerce City), 12 (Northglenn/Thornton), Colorado Springs District 11, DPS, Morgan County, Mesa County, Pueblo City Schools and Poudre School District. In addition, United Way is matching the grants in some of the counties.

Students in the after-school program at Kemp Elementary School in Commerce City are all eligible to take food-filled "backpacks" home for the weekend. Some say the backpack food is all they're likely to eat before Monday.

“We feel like we’re still missing families,” said Anna Stout, south area liaison for Educational Outreach Programs for DPS. “Right now, the backpacks go to Montclair, Lowry, Park Hill, Swansea and Ashley. With our Qwest grant, we’ll expand to two more schools. We’ll do a middle school and a k-8 school.”

Scott said that putting the food in backpacks rather than grocery bags is key, and helps avoid the stigma that might otherwise attach itself to the program. “There’s not a lot of dignity for a kid in picking up a bag of food to take home,” she said. “But with a backpack, a kid can go home on the school bus with it, and the other children don’t need to know it’s full of food.”

In Denver, the packs are stuffed by volunteers on Thursday and the needy youngsters pick them up as they leave their school on Friday afternoon. On Monday morning, they return the empty backpacks.

In Commerce City – where 6 percent of the students are homeless and 83 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches – a pilot food backpack program began in October at two schools. School officials hope to expand that program into all seven elementary schools by fall.

Unlike most other places, however, Commerce City’s “backpack” program uses sturdy paper bags, and it’s more universal. All the students who participate in the after-school programs at the pilot schools may take home the groceries, whether they’re homeless or not.

“We do that so there’s no stigma to receiving the food,” said Patty Gleason, Youth Programs Coordinator and Homeless Liaison for the school district. “In fact, the kids may not even know that they’re homeless. They just know they move a lot.”

Gloria Rodriguez runs the after-school program at Kemp Elementary in Commerce City, and she stuffs and distributes the food bags every week. “At first, some of the parents were embarrassed and ashamed to be getting the food,” she said. “But I know it’s important to them. And knowing that every child gets one makes them not feel quite so needy.”

“If we didn’t have it, sometimes we wouldn’t have dinner,” said Kory Watson, 10, a student at Kemp who loves taking the food bags home every week.

“It WAY helps us out,” said another student, 7-year-old Kaitlyn Pierce. “That’s what we’ll eat all weekend.”

Kemp after-school program coordinator Gloria Rodriguez sorts food and stuffs it into paper sacks for children to take home.

Angela Vasquez, the mother of three boys, is pragmatic about taking the food from Kemp. “This has been a life saver,” she said. “We’re living paycheck to paycheck and I only get paid once a month.” She said she appreciates the nutritional value of the groceries the family gets from school. “He can see that this is what you’re supposed to eat,” she said of her son, Julian. “I’ve been trying to get him to eat bread other than white bread, and last time there was a loaf of oatmeal bread in the bag. He tried it and he liked it.”

Scott said there’s been no study done to assess the impact of the weekend food program on homeless students’ academic performance, but anecdotally, it seems to be having an affect. “Attendance is better,” she said. “The kids are bringing the backpacks back, and several of our liaisons talk about kids who come back asking when to show up to get more food. There are reports that kids aren’t falling asleep as much.”

Stout says hunger nevertheless remains a real issue in many classrooms.

“When families experience homelessness, so many things are going on,” she said. “It’s hard to get to school early to get breakfast, especially when you’re taking three RTD rides to school. So these kids show up just a school starts, without breakfast. So it’s hard for them to focus. And in the evenings, many are living in motels that don’t have kitchens, so they can’t prepare a meal there and they’re not able to go out to dinner. So a lot have to wait until the next day to eat.”

At least one DPS school, Fairview Elementary, serves breakfast right in the classrooms to every student. “That’s a great model,” Stout said. “The teachers set it up on all the desks, and they eat breakfast and do their morning check-ins, and they know for sure that every student has eaten for the day.”

Across the state, a large number of civic groups have joined the weekend food backpack campaigns. Scott encourages those interested in donating to the effort to contact their local school district. Most districts have a homeless student liaison officer.

For more information:

Click here for information on the Denver Public Schools Food For Kids Backpack Program.

Click here to see the Hunger Report 2010, the largest study ever done on hunger in the United States.

Click here for information on the Share our Strength: No Kid Hungry campaign.

Click here for information on the Campaign to End Child Hunger in Colorado.