Combating hunger and feeding hope

Nov. 16, 2015, 2:08 p.m. | By Randima Herath | 8 years, 7 months ago

Smart Sacks Club at Blair helps local families

We've all felt it before. The pangs of hunger as our stomachs become disgruntled from the lack of sustenance. Even worse, it can happen in the middle of class or during a test when all is quiet and suddenly, the lion that is your stomach unleashes its mighty roar. From then on, you're stuck with nothing on your mind but food. Ilene Catzva, a media assistant at Blair, has taken things into her own hands in order to make sure that fewer students go hungry.

For ten years, Catzva has been running the Smart Sacks Club, a partnership with Manna Food Center. Manna is a warehouse located in Gaithersburg that collects and distributes food to members of the community who don't have enough to eat. Many of their efforts are focused on the elderly, the disabled and families in crisis that are in need of nutritious food. That's why Blair's Smart Sacks is dedicated to helping similarly needy children at Piney Branch Elementary School.

Every week, food is packed into boxes so volunteers like Ms. Catzva can pick them up to redistribute.  Photo courtesy of Washington Post.

Once a month, Catzva heads out to Manna where she picks up boxes of canned food prepared for 35 families of children that attend Piney Branch. These families that receive food on a weekly basis. Catzva then organizes a list of what must food items will be sent home every week. After school on Wednesdays, around 10 to 15 students join her to help her pack everything into plastic grocery bags. There is one grocery bag per student. Thursday morning, a staff member from Piney Branch picks up the bags and by Friday, needy children have received the food.
Catzva has been in charge of the Smart Sacks club for ten years now. After joining a mailing list for Manna, the first flyer she saw had a description of Smart Sacks. She called for information and found out that Blair High School was the first school to participate in the program there. Catzva was pleased with the pairing, having worked at Piney Branch for 15 years before she came to Blair. "Smart Sacks only supports kids in elementary school but Piney Branch is one of our feeder schools so indirectly, Blair students are benefitting," she says.

Although the club has been around for a long time, it has undergone one major change. "Originally, the name, the program Smart Sacks came from when we first did this and each student had their own brand new backpack," she explains. Catzva would give the backpacks filled with food and get them back. But this situation grew complicated as more and more children forgot to return them. "So we decided that Piney Branch would keep the backpacks permanently and that we'd put the food in plastic grocery bags so they could be placed in the backpacks once at Piney Branch," she says.

Every year, the counselor at Piney Branch sends out permission slips to needy families that are based on the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program at schools. This way, only the counselor knows the identity of the families. "I do not know nor do any of the students who are in the club know who we are providing food for," Catzva says.

So far this year, 10 Blair students are participating, but this number changes depending on other afterschool commitments they may have. "People come and go," Catzva says, who clarifies that consistent participation is not required. She also gives them an incentive to come in. "I do give out student service learning hours for this because it's something for the community," she adds.

For her, the bitter reality of childhood hunger is what keeps her dedicated to continuing Smart Sacks. "The need for families wanting food, needing food, it just breaks my heart to know people in my community don't have enough food to eat," Catzva says. For students, the satisfaction of helping is enough. "It's a great feeling knowing that you are helping out other people who may not have the sufficient amount of food to eat," junior Angie Mejia says.

Despite programs like Smart Sacks, it seems like most people are oblivious tomany are unaware of the scope of childhood hunger, especially when it affects their own communities. "I think that there's a perception of Montgomery County being this rich county, and it's really not," Catzva says. Many students across all grade levels have to deal with hunger. "There's a fairly large population in public schools who are actually on the free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs," she says. Catzva thinks that Smart Sacks alone is not enough because there are students at Blair who suffer from hunger as well. Last year, she applied for a mini grant from the Parent Teacher Association and used the money to buy extra food. "I went and bought granola bars and small trail mix bags," she says. Catzva gave every counselor one box of each and about 20 boxes to the English for Speaks of Other Languages (ESOL) department. "A lot of times, students who are new to the county need more help than others," she explains. She has reapplied for the grant for this school year as well.

Catzva is looking for a way to deal more directly with families at Blair. "The one thing I would like Blair students and staff to realize is just how much need there is, just here at our own school, how many students come in on a daily basis hungry," she says. Hunger is perhaps one of society's biggest and most unjust challenges. But taking small steps, like joining Smart Sacks, can change someone else's life. "It's important because it's good to take every opportunity life gives you to help people out," says Mejia.

Tags: Ilene Catzva Manna Food Center Anjie Mejia Piney Branch Elementary School Smart Sacks Club

Randima Herath. Hi, my name is Randi and in my free time, I like binge-watching Grey's Anatomy, singing, and procrastinating on homework. More »

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