When high school teacher Rachel Murat packs it in, she knows what she’s talking about.
Every Friday, she and a host of volunteers she’s recruited in the Maine-Endwell School District load up bags of food for the weekend for the families of 62 students in need, feeding a total of 281 people.
Each bag is stuffed with one box cereal, one box of pasta, sauce, four cans of vegetables, four cans of soup, one jar of peanut butter or three cans of tuna fish, two boxes of side dishes (i.e. rice), five granola bars, a loaf of bread donated by a local bakery, and up to eight pieces of fresh fruit. Sometimes the bags include milk, juice, yogurt and cottage cheese often donated by Crowley’s Dairy.
That’s pretty much everything, except the partridge in the pear tree.
In this Broome County community, depressed by the closing of Endicott Johnson and drastically scaled-down versions of IBM and Lockheed Martin, there are many families in need, Murat said. They can only visit the food pantry once every four weeks. Weekends are particularly tough on families, since school-age children are not eating in school.
Murat has seen that change since she started MEALS — alphabet soup for Maine-Endwell Assisting Local Spartans.
“I’ve absolutely seen kids improve in academics and behavior,” she said. “They don’t come in with a chip on their shoulder, because they’ve had enough to eat. (Being hungry) was a big stress for them.”
Families of students who are in the free/reduced meals school programs can apply for MEALS using an on-line form; teachers, guidance counselors and school psychologists also hand out forms.
Since September, Murat’s program has spent $9,738 and saved $15,560.97 using coupons and shopping for sales. MEALS recently attained not-for-profit status; donations to the program are now tax deductible and, by September, the program will be aligned with United Way.
Meanwhile, where do the money and the mojo come from?
Students, teachers and administrators volunteer, whether it’s wheeling a cart down the aisles of a grocery store or tracking money. Fund drives are held to raise money, and Murat speaks to local organizations for donations. The Maine-Endwell Teachers Association, led by teacher and union President Melissa Spierling, made a donation.
“Kids cut out coupons. They do fundraisers, they pack bags and help with inventory,” said Murat. “The kids in our community have been absolutely amazing in helping us do all this.”
In addition to learning about community service, students in Murat’s economics classes are learning to apply classroom terms in real life: supply and demand, cost analysis, cost versus benefit. Using coupons, including an online coupon service, is showing them real savings. Students have learned to use charts to itemize purchases.
During Dental Health Month, one class did a hygiene drive and collected toothpaste, toothbrushes and similar products to add to the bags.
Murat, who also teaches social studies, history and AP government, said she started the program in April 2010. Many resources are found right at the schools. A former faculty room is now a food pantry in the school. A walk-in cooler in the middle school holds perishable items, including 1,000 pounds of meat donated during the winter by Hatfield’s out of Pennsylvania. Even the elementary school now has a small pantry, and teachers help collect food and load bags.
Murat goes grocery shopping about three times a week, or “whenever kids can help me.” They comparison shop, and visit different stores for coupons or sales. She shops at different stores, spreading out the purchases at different locations.
A recent “score” was 260 boxes of pasta that ended up being free, when combined with a sale and coupons that were doubled.
“I call the stores ahead of time to let them know I’m coming,” she says.
Students do not help deliver meals, in order to protect the anonymity of the families receiving the food. Regular volunteers include Courtney Richmond, school psychologist; Christian McCarthy, teacher; Barbara Dorrington and Kathie O’Brien, teaching assistants; Joe Stoner, superintendent; Mari Geisenhof, administrator; Jason Van Fossen, principal; and Tom Burkhardt, assistant principal. They load up their vehicles every Friday after school and make their rounds.
“We call it a road show!” she says.
A bonus of the personal deliveries, she said, is that teachers and administrators are able to check in on families.
“We’re able to keep an eye on situations at home,” she said.
Operating MEALS, she said, “has become a second job, yes. It’s worth it and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”