A donation from Tyler business owners is helping the East Texas Food Bank to expand a child nutrition program for Tyler ISD students.
Any donations made by the community for the program will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Lujans.
The program provides backpacks filled with nutritious and ready-to-eat food such as granola bars, fruit, juices and peanut butter, among other items.
Children at risk for hunger receive a filled backpack on Friday to take home and bring it back empty to be refilled for the next weekend.
With the support of the Lujans, who made an initial $150,000 donation, and other donors, the food bank will expand its backpack program this year to all 18 TISD elementary schools and serve more than 1,300 children. That’s up from 1,000 TISD children last year.
The expansion of the program is part of a five-year plan.
Food Bank executive director Dennis Cullinane said that in 2009, the food bank had a vision to create a hunger-free school district and to offer the backpack program at all TISD schools.
Now in the third year of that plan, the food bank will reach its goal of operating at all schools, but has no plans of stopping there.
Cullinane said by working with the campus leadership at each school, they hope to grow those programs and ultimately reach 1,700 TISD kids.
The total projected cost of the five-year expansion is about $1 million, according to the news release. The food bank has raised about 70 percent of that.
He said in order to sustain that growth, the food bank will need continual donors.
“We’re at the tipping point, and we hope that you will become loyal supporters,” Cullinane said.
District and campus officials said programs like this are necessary if the district is to address the whole child.
“As a school district, we are responsible for providing the best education possible for students,” TISD interim superintendent Gary Mooring said. “And with your help we make it possible.”
Douglas Elementary School Principal Christy Roach said more than 20 percent of the school’s 723 students participate in the program.
Teachers nominate students they think are in need of the program and if that student has siblings, all their siblings take part.
“It’s not just about educating the child,” she said. “It’s about really providing for the whole child.”
In East Texas, 73,000 children qualify for free and reduced-price school meal programs, according to the food bank.
The East Texas Food Bank’s backpack program operates at more than 100 locations across East Texas, providing weekend meals to about 4,500 children, according to information from the food bank.
The Lujans said the backpack program is something they are passionate about.
Lujan, a former teacher, said he remembers watching children eagerly head to the cafeteria for meals, some a little more anxious than others.
Now that he and his wife have the opportunity to give back, they have chosen this cause as one of those ways.
“It’s an honor and a privilege for us to be able to give to the backpack program,” he said.
Mentoring Minds CEO Robert Bush, a former East Texas Food Bank executive director, urged the community to give back.
“We know as educators that children can’t learn with an empty stomach,” he said. “I would challenge everybody to do their part.”