As the school cafeteria emptied out from lunch, Dennis Cagle, a charter school administrator in Arizona, noticed one little girl who stayed behind to collect the food left on other students' trays. When he asked her what she was doing, the girl explained that there was no food at her house, and she was bringing these leftovers home so she and her siblings would have something to eat that night.
The girl's plight haunted Cagle, who had no idea the extent to which children in his school were going hungry at home. But it shouldn't have surprised him: One in four Arizona children live in poverty, and according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, nearly 15 million children live in poverty nationwide. With high unemployment and foreclosures, this number has risen 20 percent since 2000. It's little wonder that many children go hungry.
Though Cagle would not live to see a solution, or at least a salve, to child hunger in his community, his story inspired his friends and fellow Phoenix residents Lisa and Vince Scarpinato to create the nonprofit Kitchen on the Street, which works to provide an entire weekend's worth of nonperishable meals to schoolchildren in need. Volunteers assemble these "bags of hope," as they call them, and disribute them to nearly 800 children in Arizona and Texas each week.
"We're parents," Lisa Scarpinato says, "and we just imagined the devastation of a parent if they felt like they couldn't feed their child. We had people in the community who were out of work, or had family members who were sick, and we knew we could help. We aren't overly rich, so we knew, at first, that we could at least help one kid, so we did, and that just grew."
Scarpinato attributes the increased attendance, better concentration and improved grades to the kids' having a secure source of food each weekend. "The food is not only healing these kids bodies but changing their perspective. Hope changes brain chemistry -- kids who are hopeful try harder, persist longer and are more successful," says Scarpinato.
Kitchen on the Street now operates in 14 schools in Arizona and Texas, funded in part by government grants but predominantly by individuals and local businesses. For $25 a month, Kitchen on the Street can provide one child with five meals, snacks and breakfast bars each weekend of that month, all packed in discreet backpacks and duffle bags.
The backpacks are used because hunger isn't the only thing Kitchen on the Street is fighting, Scarpinato says. It's also fighting the stigma against poverty.
"Unfortunately, we are battling more than just physical hunger. Kids (and adults) don't want to admit they don't have enough food to eat. Tthere is a shame that goes with it," Scarpinato says.
But thanks to Kitchen on the Street's presence, that's beginning to change, she says. When it first began, the partner schools using the program weren't "overly excited" to have their names connected to it, "which means they saw a negative connotation in it," she says. "Now we see a shift. They put it on their website. We've gone from not wanting to mention we have hunger in our community five years ago, to wanting to raise awareness about it and be open about it today," Scarpinato says.
One Phoenix charter school says Kitchen on the Street has meant the difference between success and failure for its students.
Though some might question whether a school needs to concern itself with what their students eat over the weekend, Freddie Villalone, principal of a Phoenix Imagine Schools charter, says he believes "food insecurity" was holding many of his students back.
"If their bellies aren't filled, they're not going to be able to focus on their academics. They won't be able to do the homework we assign over the weekend because they're worried about finding food," he says.
At his school, 97 percent of students receive free or reduced-cost lunches. For several years, Villalone's charter school wasn't doing so well: It was in the bottom 5 percent of Arizona schools in terms of academic performance, and was told it had to improve students' grades quickly or face getting shut down. That's when it partnered with Kitchen on the Street.
Now, 150 of the school's 700 kids receive weekend "bags of hope." Since Kitchen on the Street came to the school, the school's academic rating went from an F to a B -- a turnaround that Villalone credits in large part to the food that Kitchen on the Street supplied to his students most need.
It's not only about feeding kids, he says, it's about "building a level of confidence. Their confidence levels go down if they're hungry and unable to concentrate come Monday. When they know they'll have enough to eat over the weekend, they come ready to learn. Our kids have made tremendous academic gains," he says.