Student Hunger and the Cycle of Poverty: a new direction for Food For Free

At the end of a school day, parents, teachers, and school staff loop through the cafeteria, shopping through an assortment of free groceries and produce. Under the same roof, volunteers fill backpacks with breakfasts and lunches for students to take straight home on Friday. Food For Free’s School Markets and Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program provide services in the same halls where Cambridge’s students go every day to learn—and that’s what makes them so effective. As Food For Free looks ahead at the next three years, the organization will emphasize schools as the primary entry point for hunger relief services.

In the last five years, all of Food For Free’s programs have grown tremendously. Besides adopting the Backpack Program and launching four School Markets, we have tripled the amount of food we rescue, doubled the recipients of Home Delivery, and created the Family Meals program. As we continue to operate all of these programs, we recognize the need to intentionally seek how Food For Free can best serve our community and extend what we are capable of doing.

We are excited to announce our vision for the next three years to focus our efforts on expanding services in schools and colleges. We wil do this while maintaining our current operations.

Our strategic plan is the result of a year of collaboration between Food For Free’s Board of Directors, staff members, and our partners at the consulting firm Impact Catalysts. Last fall, the planning group identified the organization’s strengths and the areas in our community where food rescue and hunger relief efforts can be most effective. The plan emphasizes three goals: extending our programs in K-12 schools in Cambridge and surrounding communities, developing programs to address hunger in public colleges, and sharing our expertise in school-based hunger relief as a thought leader in Greater Boston.

School buildings serve as an effective entry point for engagement with the root causes of hunger and poverty. Just in Cambridge, 45% of K-12 students qualify for free and reduced price lunches, and the city has identified an increase in poverty among families with school-aged children. We hope to serve students and their families who struggle with hunger by meeting them in a place where they spend time every day. Our goal is to limit barriers to entry and provide convenient and dignified access to food, specifically through expansions of the Backpack Program and School Markets.

A statewide study has also identified a growing need for hunger relief among college students. Over a third of Massachusetts’ public and community colleges report increases in students facing food insecurity and hunger. At Bunker Hill Community College, around half of all students experience regular, sustained periods of hunger or insufficient nutrition. We plan to address this need by piloting and expanding our Family Meals program in public colleges.

Recognizing the limited capacity of our organization and the breadth of need in areas beyond Cambridge, the final objective of Food For Free’s strategic plan is to document and then disseminate our expertise in school hunger relief programs. By conducting research, documenting our models, and working in collaboration with other agencies, Food For Free seeks to share meaningful contributions with the broader effort of hunger relief.

Food For Free is confident that addressing student hunger has the potential to disrupt the poverty cycle. By using the school buildings themselves to expand food access, Food For Free considers the challenges that all families, particularly those experiencing poverty, face day to day. When families have sufficient access to nutritious food, students are able to be active and attentive throughout the school day and achieve greater success throughout their primary, secondary, and post-secondary academic careers.

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