February 22, 2019; Notre Dame, Kelly Cares and Cultivate Culinary are partnering to provide 100 kids from Madison STEAM Academy with insulated backpacks of food for the weekends. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

ELKHART — A local nonprofit will reduce the number of Elkhart County students who go hungry over the weekends this school year.

Cultivate, a South Bend-based food rescue organization, is expanding its Elkhart County efforts, which began this past spring by helping 20 Woodland Elementary School students with weekend meals. The new goal is to help 150 students in the county.

The nonprofit rescues unserved food from local kitchens, such as the University of Notre Dame and Four Winds Casino. Volunteers then turn that food into meals that are put in insulated backpacks and given to students in need each Friday.

“About half the students in Elkhart County are on the free and reduced lunch program,” said Todd Zeltwanger, Cultivate director of fund development.

And for some students, he said, the two meals they get in school is all the food they get in a day.

“And then they go home on the weekends. Many of these students have little to no food at home, so there’s a 68-hour gap between Friday lunch at the school and Monday morning breakfast at the school,” he said.

The purpose of Cultivate’s effort is to fill that gap.

According to Elkhart Community Schools supervisor of student services, Natalie Bickel, the pilot program at Woodland Elementary was a huge success.

“It was great. The kids loved the food, they showed growth in school, their attendance improved, their parents were very supportive. It was really a wonderful thing for the school,” she said.

Cultivate targets young students in particular.

“Because those are the prime developmental years for them to learn. When they’re in kindergarten, first and second grade, they really can’t help it if they don’t have adequate food,” Zeltwanger said.

He believes sending meals home with students is also a good way to avoid wasting food, since excess meals for events would usually go to the landfill if it weren’t for Cultivate.

According to the nonprofit Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, 40% of food in the U.S. is thrown out every year.

“Which is incredible if you think about people that are food insecure and hungry, and yet we’re throwing away 40 percent of our food,” Zeltwanger said.

He said that if the amount of food that is wasted in the U.S. can be reduced by one-third, that would be enough to feed every food-insecure person in the country.

However, Cultivate faces one problem in expanding to 150 students, or more than 32,000 meals a year, in Elkhart County. There’s a financial burden to preparing and delivering so much food.

“We don’t sell these meals to anybody, we give them away to the schools, so we have to rely on donations from individuals and companies to allow us to operate,” Zeltwanger said.

“We have a truck that has to have fuel, we have a truck driver, we have a lease payment on the truck, and we have rent on a building, and a couple of employees,” he said.

Sponsoring one backpack for a month costs $35 per month, and Cultivate is hoping to get yearlong sponsorships. To encourage companies to donate, Cultivate offers benefits such as free participation and logo displays at events including an upcoming golf outing at the Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame.

The largest suggested company donation is for 100 backpacks for a year. That would be a $42,000 gift, which would also earn the sponsor benefits like having their logo on Cultivate’s refrigerated truck and on all backpack tags.

This year, Cultivate will help 400 students with weekly meals across Elkhart, St. Joseph and Marshall counties. Next year, Zeltwanger said, the plan is to help 800 students.

The 100 backpacks given to the Elkhart Community Schools will go to students at Mary Daly Elementary, Hawthorne Elementary, Pinewood Elementary, Roosevelt STEAM Academy and Woodland Elementary. Twenty students at each of those schools will receive weekly meals.

The students who receive meals will be the same throughout the school year. According to Bickel, staff at the individual schools were asked to help identify students who had the biggest need for assistance with meals over the weekend.

“It definitely takes a team to identify needs. A lot of times, lunch personnel will see things that we don’t on Monday morning ... kids who are trying to get in the lunch line the fastest, getting food first because they are super hungry from the weekend,” she said.

The 50 backpacks going to Wa-Nee Community Schools have already been sponsored through the Family Christian Development Center, who asked participants at their annual fundraiser to pitch in.

Cultivate has started this year’s program at Wa-Nee, while its efforts at Elkhart Community Schools is expected to begin on Sept. 20. The nonprofit was founded in 2015 and has rescued food since 2017.

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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