More than a decade ago, we at Running Strong for American Indian Youth® heard from the superintendent of the Menominee Indian School District (MISD) on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin, that young children were arriving at the elementary school on Monday mornings lethargic and unable to focus on their classwork.
They were famished from not having a decent meal since their school lunch the Friday before.
To address that critical need, we initiated our “Smart Sacks” program in the 2010-2011 school year for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children in the school district to provide them with a backpack filled with nutritious snacks on Fridays to take home so they would have something to eat on the weekends.
The impact was immediate.
Teachers saw a huge difference in their students and came to Running Strong with a request to help even more students. Together, we and the school district were able to work out a plan to expand the “Smart Sacks” program to serve the entire student body.
For the 2022-2023 school year, we are planning on providing all 420 students at the Keshena Primary School with a Smart Sack each Friday, 1,680 per month, to take home for themselves and their families.
That amounts to a total of 13,500 bags of non-perishable food items which may include cereal, oatmeal, canned meats, soups, vegetables, pork and beans, beef stew, pasta and more – plenty of food to keep a family of four from going hungry over the weekend.
MISD grant coordinator Paul Schwaller told us in May that 86 percent of the school’s student body qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program and the community is still recovering from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in an all-time high unemployment rate of 36 percent during the peak.
“Our students experience hardship when it comes to getting enough food,” says Paul. “This program will help our students who need extra food or snacks.”
More recently we established a partnership with the Wakpala School on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota to provide 190 students with Smart Sacks each week, 760 monthly – a total of 5,760 through the entire school year.
The program at Wakpala was initiated by a 2015 Running Strong Dreamstarter grant recipient, Samantha Yellow Fat, who is now a social worker at the school whose goal after graduating college was to use her degree and social work license to continue working with youth, particularly Native American youth.
“I am currently able to do so…and on my own Rez!” she says.
Fred Fischer, the school’s food service director, echoed what we have heard at other predominantly Native American schools on reservations, saying, “Some, if not all, of our students struggle with food insecurities on weekends and during holidays.”
Menominee school district business manager Robert Ferguson notes that the Smart Sacks program is vital for the health and well-being of the school students.
“Many students would not have food for the weekend without this program,” he commented. “This is a very successful program.”
All these years later, we still credit MISD Supt. Wendell Waukau for making us aware of the great need for our Smart Sacks program, informing us that the school district suffers from a high rate a poverty leading to child hunger on the weekends when students do not receive the twice-daily meals they enjoy on school days.
“Our teachers have documented that this lack of food causes fatigue, absenteeism and poor health – and this is impacting the children’s ability to learn.”
And from then on, thanks to our supporters, we have been operating our Smart Sacks program ever since – which at an average of five pounds each will amount to nearly 100,000 pounds of food this academic year alone for a total of 610 Native American students attending these two schools and their families.