Program sends food for the weekend for students

Members of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, Cultivate Culinary, Elkhart Leadership Academy and Elkhart Community Schools get ready to cut the ribbon for a new program that sends 20 Woodland Elementary School students home meals for every weekend, beginning March 29. 

ELKHART — A new program aims to reduce food insecurity for Elkhart children over the weekend.

For some students, school provides the most stable meals, leaving weekends as a challenge. A new collaboration that sends a group of students home with a backpack full of food between Elkhart Community Schools, Cultivate Culinary and Elkhart Leadership Academy should help some of those students, starting this weekend, officials said.

Specifically, 20 students at Woodland Elementary School, will receive a backpack full with eight frozen meals each Friday, starting on March 29.

Todd Zeltwanger, director of fund development at Cultivate Culinary, said the organization “rescues” food that would otherwise be thrown out and gets it to people that it would benefit.

“We go pick it up, take it back to our kitchen in South Bend. Volunteers come in and put meals together with that food, and then we get that out to people in need,” he said.

The group is already involved in a project involving an elementary school in South Bend, so when Cultivate Culinary was asked if it was possible to replicate that in Elkhart, they signed up.

The food that is rescued for this program originates with the Elkhart Community Schools.

“We’re picking up their food from the cafeterias, that they had prepared but never served, and we’re taking it back, putting it into meals and then getting it back to them,” he said.

The 20 students who are now in the program were chosen by several school employees who evaluated who would benefit the most, said Natalie Bickel, supervisor of student services at Elkhart Community Schools.

“Woodland is CEP school, so all the students get breakfast and lunch for free, and I knew there was a big need here,” said Bickel. “So we kind of came up with the backpack program to give some nutritional food to our kids.”

CEP stands for Community Eligibility Provision and is a federal program that lets low-income schools and districts provide free breakfast and lunch without collecting household applications.

Instead, schools are reimbursed by the USDA.

“We’re just so excited,” said Bickel. “We set our goals pretty high, and somehow the stars are aligning and we’re reaching them.”

Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said being able to help students even when they aren’t in school can be an important step in the schools’ work.

“When Natalie brought it forth to me, I was really excited about it, because it provides the opportunity for us to take care of the whole child,” Thalheimer said.

He also hopes the program will help students improve academically.

“This gives us the opportunity to extend that care into the homes so that those students are fed and their families are taken care of, so they can come back to school on the next day or the Monday, ready to work,” he said.

He said that with the size of the school corporation it is hard to avoid preparing more food than is needed, and he was happy that this program now puts that extra food to good use through Cultivate Culinary.

Should the program show good results in the remainder of the school year, it could expand in the future.

“We see that potential for that expanding in the next school year and beyond,” Zeltwanger said.

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