ST. PETERSBURG — Before the Harbordale YMCA started handing out individual bags of nonperishable food on Fridays to 40 students in its before- and after-school program, many children came in Monday morning hungry.
"They are in a computer lab before school and you used to be able to hear those stomachs growling or they would tell you they were hungry," said Harbordale executive director Elena Stowers. "That has decreased drastically with the addition of the Pack-a-Sacks. It has really cut down on the Monday morning anxiousness or tears because they are so hungry."
The Harbordale Y is one of 10 Pinellas schools and other programs receiving a total of 620 bags from the St. Petersburg Free Clinic each Friday to stave off hunger when their students are away from school where they get free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch.
The Free Clinic is one of several area organizations financing and filling these bags as the community has become more aware in recent years of the hunger children face on the weekends. In fact, groups and schools around the country are taking part in similar Pack-a-Sack programs.
One in four children in Pinellas County is "food insecure," meaning they aren't quite sure where their next meal will come from, according to Ellen McDonald, Free Clinic spokeswoman.
"All of our parents or caregivers are trying really hard, but when they are making minimum wage, that's not a living wage," Stowers said. Even those who can provide three meals a day often don't have money for snacks for growing children or a meal kids can fix themselves if parents are working on the weekends, she said.
"They do look forward to it on Fridays," she said. "There might not be breakfast food at home for tomorrow, but they know they've got their healthy breakfast cookies and they've got milk, they've got juice. They know it will at least hold them over."
Each Pack-a-Sack includes 12 items such as an individual cereal box, a shelf-stable milk box, a juice box, Vienna sausages, canned ravioli, cheese crackers, peanut butter crackers, granola bars and fruit snacks.
The cost of each bag is $4.75, so the clinic spends about $3,000 a week on the food.
Beyond the cost, there's also a need for hands to fill all those bags.
The clinic welcomes groups of five to 15 people to schedule a three-hour session filling bags in assembly line fashion at its 863 Third Ave. N location. While many charitable organizations and projects accept only adult volunteers, it welcomes children 9 and older as long as there is a one-to-one adult-to-child ratio. No financial or food contribution is required.
Because of a long history with the Free Clinic, LCC Day School students ages 4 to 15 recently held a special event in their gym to fill 500 sacks. Middle school students organized and supervised the assembly line as younger students went through and each filled a bag.
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"The whole school collected money for the Pack-a-Sack program, and we had a representative from the Free Clinic come out and talk during chapel about who it serves," said Celeste Stroud, assistant head of the school in Shore Acres. "We felt it would be a great opportunity for the kids to get a better understanding of what Pack-a-Sack does and what these kids get to eat for an entire weekend. It definitely made an impact."