Like clockwork every Friday afternoon, children at Spring Elementary School line up in the school cafeteria to pick up a brown bag filled with fresh fruit and granola bars, cereal, peanut butter and jelly "Uncrustable" sandwiches, and shelf-stable milk.
First-grader Tanija Jemison said she likes the cereal best -- Cheerios were in Friday's bag. Her classmate, Davonia Parker, said she likes taking the bags home.
"I share them with my Mom," the 6-year-old said.
As part of Mobile Meals of Toledo's Weekender program, more than 1,000 Toledo schoolchildren receive the care packages each Friday during the school year. The program has grown steadily since Central City Ministry of Toledo partnered with Mobile Meals to launch the program at the now-closed Pope John Paul II School and Queen of Apostles School.
"When we started with CCMT in 2008, we started with 250 kids," said Maureen Stevens, executive director of Mobile Meals of Toledo. "Last school year, we served 1,020 kids."
Teachers and principals say they appreciate the nutritious boost for kids, which they hope will make them better prepared for school on Monday morning.
"It's fantastic," said Victoria Dipman, acting principal at Spring. "The kids really are anxious to get the bags."
The idea, modeled after a program used around the country, has caught on around northwest Ohio, particularly as the economy has worsened and unemployment has taken its toll on families.
"In Fostoria, we've lost enough industry that we've got families struggling," said Peg Kauffman, coordinator of Fostoria Food Connection, a program started this fall by the Geary Family YMCA. "We're really hoping that this is going to have a good impact on our children."
With a $75,000 grant from the ProMedica Advocacy Fund, the YMCA purchased backpacks that volunteers fill with food for about 500 third through sixth-graders at Fostoria Intermediate School.
"Our schools are around the 60 percent free and reduced-lunch range, and the concern was if these kids are not able to afford school lunch what are they doing on the weekends for food -- nutritional food?" said Eric Stinehelfer, executive director at the YMCA in Fostoria.
In Findlay, a weekend food program dubbed Feed A Child was initiated last school year after some Marathon Oil employees volunteering as reading tutors discovered that some of the children they were working with were hungry.
"They had an occasion when a little girl asked when lunch was coming," said Russ Gartner, executive director of the Findlay Family YMCA. "The volunteer said, 'You must be hungry,' and she said, 'I haven't eaten since Friday.' That triggered for them that there was a problem here, and they took their concerns to United Way."
With a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation and more than $11,000 raised by the Marathon employee volunteers, the YMCA provided bags of food to 187 students at Washington Intermediate School every Friday last school year. Mr. Gartner said United Way of Hancock County provided $15,000 for the program this year and, with a $20,000 grant provided by the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northwest Ohio, the Y has expanded the program to Jacobs Elementary School.
"I don't think there's any question it's going to grow -- unfortunately, it is," Mr. Gartner said. "There are just so many kids out there from families who are struggling."
In Defiance County, the program started at Defiance Elementary last fall, expanded to Hicksville Elementary by spring, and this fall is offered at all five elementary schools in the county.
Carrie Wetstein, executive director of United Way of Defiance County, said the idea began percolating when Defiance Elementary noticed some students who qualify for free breakfasts and lunch stuffing extra food in their pockets. The youngsters said it was "for later" or for siblings at home, she said.
In Toledo, Mobile Meals' Ms. Stevens said she would love to offer the Weekender program at every school in the city if there were enough money to do it.
As it is, the agency relies on grants and donations to offer the program at schools with some of the highest percentages of children whose families qualify for free and reduced lunches -- Queen of Apostles, Rosary Cathedral, Spring, and Leverette elementary schools.
The food, she said, is intended for the child, not the whole family.
"It's intended to supplement their nutrition over the weekend. It's not meant to be their entire nutrition," she said. "… They can come to school on Monday just a little bit better nourished and ready to learn."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.