Beyond Free Lunch: Schools Open Food Pantries For Hungry Families : The Salt More than 8 million U.S. children don't get enough to eat. In Sacramento, Calif., one school is helping families cope by sending students home for the weekend with backpacks full of groceries.

Beyond Free Lunch: Schools Open Food Pantries For Hungry Families

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According to the USDA, 1 in 5 households with children routinely ran out of food last year. When food shortages become chronic, poor nutrition and stress produce long-term health consequences for children and adults. Julia Mitric with Capital Public Radio in Sacramento reports on a school in California that's helping students and their families cope with chronic hunger.

JULIA MITRIC, BYLINE: John Still K-8 School, home of the Tigers, serves Meadowview, a picturesque name for a Sacramento neighborhood blanketed in concrete and bare of trees. There are 970 students on John Still's campus; 100 percent of them qualify for the free and reduced meal program - breakfast, lunch and supper snack.

Amaya Weiss is the learning support specialist for the school, identifying anything that prevents kids from being at school ready to learn. On a weekday morning, Weiss is showing me around her headquarters.

What is this whole room called again?

AMAYA WEISS: This is called the Youth Family Resource Center. And this is the first room that we can go to where you can just see the food.

MITRIC: She's unlocking a storage closet just a few feet away from her desk.

I see Ramen...

WEISS: Lots of Top Ramen...

MITRIC: ...Soups...

WEISS: ...Lots of soups, tomatoes. My families love pasta because it's easy to make. And sometimes the kids just come in here and say I'm still hungry. Can I have something to eat? And then we give them that, too.

MITRIC: Weiss started seeking food donations from Sacramento churches about a year ago after realizing many students couldn't count on weeknight dinners or weekend meals at home. This little food pantry gives Weiss a chance to connect with parents like Erica Johnson, a single mother of four. Johnson volunteers at the food pantry and she relies on it. Johnson says her food stamps run out by the 20th of the month, but she still needs to feed her family.

ERICA JOHNSON: That's when it really gets hard.

MITRIC: What are those last 10 days like for you? When you wake up, do you have a kind of nervous moment?

JOHNSON: When I'm real low on food, it's like I wake up and I'm like OK, what are we going to eat? I have no clue what they're going to eat. And I sit there and I'm like (groans).

MITRIC: That uncertainty would be hard for any parent to bear.

JOHNSON: So if we're, like, running real low on food, I'm like OK guys, this is the - we're almost out of food so mom has to compromise.

BARBARA LARAIA: Each month, families have to decide this. But this is month after month. It's a chronic condition.

MITRIC: Barbara Laraia, associate professor at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health.

LARAIA: The fixed expenses are the ones that get prioritized. And the food budget is more elastic so families are forced to compromise on their food budget.

MITRIC: More than 8 million children lived in households with food insecurity in 2013. And with rising income inequality, Laraia says the problem is not going away. As for solutions, Laraia encourages policy makers to take note of what's working within community-based strategies. But, she cautions, that doesn't mean a public school like John Still K-8 should be left with the burden of poverty reduction.

LARAIA: If a school is needing to address food insecurity above and beyond the school lunch and school breakfast program, that means that that school and that community's in crisis.

MITRIC: Hunger is an arrow pointing to a host of socioeconomic woes. Amaya Weiss, who runs the food pantry at John Still School, is aiming to draw high-risk families out of the woodwork. So sending a student home with a backpack of groceries for the weekend is not meant as a quick fix for poverty. Weiss pictures that food as a bridge.

WEISS: It's meant to give you a piece of trust, a piece of what we can offer. And so I just want that bag to be kind of the beginning of a conversation of where we can go together and how we can get you linked to better resources.

MITRIC: And when Weiss tells kids just 'cause you're growing up hungry in Meadowview doesn't mean you'll always be hungry. She wants that to be true. For NPR News, I'm Julia Mitric in Sacramento.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That story came to us from Capital Public Radio's documentary series The View From Here.

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