The National School Lunch Program ensures that all students get a mid-day meal each school day, giving them the nourishment and fuel they need to focus on learning. Some Groton residents recognized that the program doesn’t guarantee that students will have the food they need over the weekend to arrive at school ready to learn on Monday morning.
Last year those residents formed a new organization designed to provide assistance to school-age children in the Groton School District who may not be receiving adequate meals on weekends. The new organization is called Building Academic Groton Students for Tomorrow, or BAGS for short.
The organization puts together a bag of food for students to take home at the end of the school week. The bag of food is designed to supplement the student’s food intake over the weekend and allow the student to come to school on Monday properly nourished and ready to learn. Each bag contains food for two meals a day plus snacks for each day.
“By meeting a student’s basic needs, such as hunger,” Groton Elementary Principal Dan Dalchow said, “we can make learning much easier for a student.”
The program is open to all Groton students and has no ties with the Free/Reduced lunch program. They do, however, use the National School Lunch Program as a basis to predict how many students may use the program. According to the Groton School District website, of the 592 students enrolled in the district last year, 18.5 percent received free or reduced-price meals. This means that the program’s potential is more than 100 students.
“Just because a student receives a free or reduced lunch doesn’t mean they don’t have adequate food over the weekend,” Dalchow said. “We expect that only about 5 percent need the program. That’s not a large percentage of the population, but the need is there.”
The BAGS program kicked off last January with the focus on getting the program up and running. The program was only available to students in the elementary school. Ten bags on average were distributed each week to needy students for the rest of the school year.
“The program started slowly,” Dalchow said. “But that allowed us to work out any kinks as we went along. The real drive will come this fall, when school starts up again.”
Dalchow also stressed that complete confidentiality will be kept with the program.
“I will be the person handing out the bags each week at the elementary school,” Dalchow said. “The food will be placed in the student’s locker at school towards the end of the day. No one else will have access to names—everything will be kept completely confidential.”
The food will be distributed in regular plastic bags to help keep that confidentiality. Ken’s Food Fair has donated the bags to be used.
“The plastic bags won’t be noticed,” Dalchow said. “The students are always carrying plastic bags home from school.”
Due to the generosity of the people of Groton, as well as the application and awarding of several grants, the organization has a healthy budget. Last year it cost about $8.30 for each bag that was distributed, for o a total of $1,491 for one semester.
“I have been overwhelmed by the response to this program,” Dalchow said. “The generosity of time and money from so many different people and organizations makes me proud to live in this community. I know that the recipients of the bags are grateful for the help.”
There are 37 weeks in the school year, in which bags will be distributed each week. If the number of bags were to stay the same for next year (10), it will cost the organization $3,071, but the number of bags is anticipated to go up.
Students are not automatically enrolled in the program; parents do need to apply to the program to participate. Information on the program and how to apply will be sent home with students, or parents can contact Dalchow at the elementary school at 397-2317.
The new organization is a joint effort between the Groton School District and the United Methodist Church. The district runs the program along with volunteer support and assistance while the UMC provides sponsorship support. Organizations such as BAGS can be found throughout the country, as well as in a number of communities here in South Dakota. Similar groups in Sioux Falls and Watertown have waiting lists of students who want to be enrolled in their programs, which are capped due to volunteer and financial limitations.
“It is a real feather in our cap to have a program like this within our school district and community,” Dalchow said.