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A community effort: No Hungry Kids

Bemidji Area Schools provides lunch as part of its summer program at Central Elementary School on Tuesday. Submitted photo.

BEMIDJI—Sanford Health of Bemidji is expanding its Healthy Kids Initiative by partnering with Bemidji Area Schools and the local United Way to ensure no child goes hungry.

The medical provider announced Tuesday a new program called No Hungry Kids. As part of the program, Sanford is making a commitment of $405,000 over the next five years to both the school district and the United Way.

At Bemidji Area Schools, the dollars will go toward the district's Angel Fund, a program created to cover the unpaid meal debt left at the end of the year. At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, District Food and Nutrition Services Coordinator Tammie Colley said there was a debt of $26,000.

"The Angel Fund has been using miscellaneous funds that have been donated," Colley said. "With that, we help those families who've communicated their need. It's for those who've filled out the application, but because of circumstances, are unable to qualify. Or, they're just over that line of not qualifying and have expressed that they can't afford this."

"Even with the federal free or reduced food program, there are still a number of families who are just not able to afford meals. That's what the Angel Fund has come in to help with," said District Superintendent Jim Hess. "We also have kids who have families in transition and we don't know if they're going to qualify or not. During that interim time, there's still a bill because our policy in the district is that we feed every child."

Meanwhile, for the United Way, the contribution from Sanford will go toward expanding the Backpack Buddies program. The effort, currently in four of the district's schools, provides children with access to food during weekends.

Every weekend and before a school break, students receive a food pack of non-perishable and easy-to-prepare food, which has been purchased by the United Way from the North Country Food Bank in Crookston. The packs include two entrees, two breakfast items, one vegetable, two fruits, two milk containers, one high protein item and a snack.

"Right now, there are about 180 kids that receive a pack every Friday during the school year. Teachers identify them as kids who would be in need," said Denae Alamano, the United Way of Bemidji Area's executive director. "With the commitment from Sanford, we'll be able to cover all nine schools and that is a huge win for the kids in Bemidji."

Alamano also said the organization has been in communication with the Alexandria school district about a pantry model. Alamano said instead of adding food packs at the high school, the model would allow a food pantry students could draw from.

According to Bryan Nermoe, executive vice president of Sanford Bemidji, the partnership between the three is based on research compiled from a community health needs assessment. The highest needs found in that assessment were mental health care and services for at-risk youth as well as low-income families.

The need is there

According to data provided by Hess, the assessment aligns with the school's enrollment numbers. In a spreadsheet from the 2016-2017 school year, 48.9 percent of the 5,138 students enrolled in the Bemidji district lived in poverty and qualified for free or reduced meals. Additionally, 1.6 percent of the students enrolled were homeless.

"We have the Healthy Kids Initiative at Sanford, because if you're not taking care of the kids, you're not taking care of the future," Nermoe said. "We talked to the United Way and the school district because of their in-depth knowledge on the subject and brought them together to figure out what we can do."

The distribution for the No Hungry Kids program includes:

• $60,000 toward Backpack Buddies and $20,000 toward the Angel Fund for the 2018-2019 school year.

• $62,400 for Backpack Buddies; $15,000 for the Angel Fund in 2019-20.

• $66,000 for Backpack Buddies; $15,000 for the Angel Fund in 2020-21.

• $67,800 for Backpack Buddies; $15,000 for the Angel Fund in 2021-22.

• $69,600 for Backpack Buddies; $15,000 for the Angel Fund in 2022-23.

While the dollars from Sanford are a major boost, though, Hess said that fundraising efforts, such as the recent Angel Fund 5K events, will continue in the coming years to help support the overall effort.

"We know this won't address all of our needs. We're going to keep working on raising funds to help these kids," Hess said. "We want to stand up for the kids. We want to make sure they get every opportunity that we can give them as a caring community. That I think is what Sanford's message is today, to care about the community and make sure the children are taken care of."

The local district's efforts to feed students has expanded beyond the school year, too. Over the summer, Bemidji Area Schools is also providing breakfast and lunch to children, thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program.

"When the school year ends, the summer meal program starts. We usually serve more than 27,000 meals throughout the summer at four locations," Colley said. "We serve any child, 18 and under. The parents can purchase a meal for $4, so we've had many moms come in to have lunch for $4 and all of the family got a hot meal."

"When you have multiple entities working together, you can address a lot of needs," Nermoe said. "These private-public partnerships are what I believe can really impact the future of communities."

In addition to the No Hungry Kids program, Sanford has also partnered with Beltrami County to increase mental health services.

Another initiative that came from the community health needs assessment fell through, however.

Sanford officials and Greater Bemidji Economic Development were working last year on a proposed sports and wellness complex to be built on the Sanford Bemidji campus. The $27 million project included a wellness center, aquatics center, a multi-use sports bubble and additional ice sheets. The initiative stalled, however, when common ground with the city on areas such as a lodging tax and amateur sports commission could not be achieved. Nermoe said Sanford is still looking at various aspects of the project for the future.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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