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Backpack program helps students facing food insecurity

PITTSBURGH — Last spring, Mrs. Shelley West and Mrs. Melissa Matlock had an experience that confirmed a suspected issue: students were in need of food supplies at home.  The Shaler Area middle school teachers did not hesitate to find a solution.  Six months later, the Shaler Area Backpack Initiative was created.

“As we were returning from a field trip, a student approached us and asked what we were going to do with the leftover bagged lunches from the cafeteria. Something that we had suspected as a potential issue for this student was confirmed and that was all we needed in terms of motivation. Even one student with not enough to eat is one too many,” Matlock said.

“We realized that there are many students like him that may not have much food over the weekend,” West said.

The purpose of the program is to assist and support students and their siblings in need of weekend food supplies.

The Backpack Initiative works by distributing forms to students where they can choose to take part in the program, writing their names along with any siblings.  There are no eligibility requirements to participate, and the enrollment is on a first come first serve basis.  Each Friday, the students receive a paper bag for themselves along with additional bags for each sibling signed up as well.  The bags include two breakfast items, two lunch items, and two snacks.  These foods are all single serving snacks and meals that are easy for the kids to prepare.

Inspired by North Hill’s Backpack Initiative, West and Matlock went to the local school’s program, established in 2012, for help.

“We knew that the North Hills school district had a backpack program so we went and spoke with them.  They have been running their initiative for several years.  They were able to give us advice for our program based on what they learned to be the best practices.  We have made some changes to our program based on the needs of our community,” West said.

The next step was getting approval from the Shaler Area school board and administrators.

“Getting started we had countless meetings with district and building administration, DPC, SAMPSPA, and as a final measure of formality Dr. Shipley presented the idea to the school board on our behalf. During those six months of planning and preparation we were also hosting a series of donation drives in the district and the community to raise adequate start-up funds,” Matlock said.

Both Superintendent Dr. Shipley and middle school Principal Mr. Martynuska were very impressed and supportive of the two teachers.

“Beyond being the teachers of our students, Mrs. West and Mrs. Matlock are supportive, compassionate, humble people who clearly wish to serve our Shaler Area children well without the expectation of accolades. They are truly “unsung heroes” and provide an example of the many things that our staff does each day that are “above and beyond,” Mr. Martynuska said.

“It demonstrates that the teachers of Shaler Area really do care about this community and their students.  They are dedicated to helping others.  Not just teaching the curriculum and going home, but personalizing the issues our students deal with and working to make a difference there as well.  If students are hungry, learning is much more difficult.  Our teachers understand that we have to meet basic needs first,” Shipley said.

After getting permission from the school board, Dr. Shipley, and Mr. Martynuska, the Shaler Area Back Pack Initiative was launched this fall.  West and Matlock attributed the smooth start up to the help of other staff and community members.

“Initially, we had to find a space in the building to store the food and also pack the bags.  Mr. Martynuska helped us by getting us a room to use.  The custodial staff put up shelving for us.  We also use this room to distribute food bags to kids in our building,” West said.

The initial startup costs and food supply were funded by teachers and staff members.  After a few weeks, there were over 200 students and their siblings receiving food each Friday.  Starting from a storage room in the middle school building, food is now distributed to all primary buildings, the elementary and middle school.  There are staff members from all eight district schools who assist the program.

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