Most kids look forward to the weekend. But for some students at Woodland Elementary School in Elkhart, Ind., it’s not always a happy time.
“A lot of them are food insecure,” said Natalie Bickel, the supervisor of student services at Elkhart Community Schools. “They know they’re not going to have a breakfast and a lunch.”
Angel Null, whose two children attend the school, said the family had recently fallen on hard times. Her husband had been laid off from his job in the RV industry shortly after she became a stay-at-home mom last fall.
“It’s been a struggle as a mom,” she told The Washington Post. “There’s times where its been just peanut butter and jelly."
But this weekend, her son, 8 and daughter, 6, came home with backpacks filled with frozen meals. They could choose from French toast and red velvet macadamia nut pancakes for breakfast. There were drumsticks and hot dogs for lunch.
Null’s children were part of a group of 20 students participating in a pilot program at Woodland Elementary. A food-rescue nonprofit organization called Cultivate has stepped in to re-purpose leftover cafeteria food into frozen meals that needy students can take home over the weekend.
“There’s a peace of mind to know there’s something in the fridge,” Null said.
In a county where nearly 13 percent of children ages 5 to 17 in families live in poverty, according to census data, Bickel said many students rely on free or reduced-price school lunches. But outside of school, their nutritional options could be limited.
The new pilot programseeks to fill that gap.
Bickel worked with Cultivate and social workers at Woodland Elementary to identify students for the program that launched on March 29 and has so far garnered enthusiasm, Bickel said. The students receive backpacks that double as coolers and are given eight frozen meals to enjoy over the weekend.
Cultivate takes leftovers to its facilities, where a small staff and group of volunteers compile them into meals that include a protein, a vegetable, and a starch. They’re packaged in recyclable containers and frozen to maintain freshness, then placed in backpacks that are distributed by school officials to students in the program.
When the program was announced to Woodland Elementary’s cafeteria workers, they stood up and applauded, Bickel said. “It’s something they deal with every day,” she said. “They see the need, they see the hungry kids, and to throw [extra food] away was really difficult for them.”
Cultivate Culinary School and Catering was founded in 2016 by Jim Conklin and a local chef, Randy Ziolkowski, after a previous restaurant enterprise fell through. Dismayed by the amount of food going to waste and wanting to help their community, they founded the nonprofit to take food that would otherwise be thrown out by caterers and event spaces and repurpose it into healthy meals for those in need.
Cultivate had already begun piloting a school-lunch program similar to Woodland’s at the nearby Madison STEAM Academy in South Bend, Ind., Conklin told The Post. The group provides weekend meals for 100 students at that school, and the food comes from donors such as the University of Notre Dame, a partner, as well as local event spaces and catering services.
“Our goal is to feed hungry kids, and we want to see improved school performance, whether it’s academic, behavior, or attendance,” Conklin said. “This backpack program was close to our hearts.”
Bickel was part of a local leadership academy run by the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce. Last October, the program’s director of business development, Melissa Ramey, brought in nonprofits for the academy participants to work with, and one of them was Cultivate. Excited by the idea of working with them, Bickel put Cultivate in touch with officials at Woodland Elementary. After deciding the best course of action was the backpack lunch program, they worked with the health department and food workers at the school to implement the best approach.
Ramey was proud of the program that had resulted from the leadership academy’s collaboration and hoped that providing regular meals would help children focus on their academics.
“When they go home on the weekends and maybe they get one meal a day, whatever their parents are working hard to provide, I hope this is able to supplement that,” she said. “I hope to hear that these meals create a better outcome for these students."
In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption mistakenly identified a student at Madison STEAM Academy as an attendee of Woodland Elementary. It has been corrected.