Continuing their support to end childhood hunger in Polk County, the Walmart Foundation has donated $75,000 for the SmilePak program at the Agape Food Bank, which is operated by Catholic Charities of Central Florida. This donation will allow Agape to continue and expand the program to more schools and serve more children who would otherwise go hungry on the weekend.
“For these children, leaving school on Friday may mean not eating again until they return to school on Monday,” said Kim Long, Agape’s Director. SmilePak’s goal is to bridge this weekend hunger gap by providing backpacks filled with food to the neediest school children in Polk County.
The program was initially funded by an anonymous contribution in 2011 from a member of a local Catholic congregation. A major grant from the Walmart Foundation in 2012 helped expand SmilePak from four schools and four hundred students to fifteen schools and 1000 students. SmilePak is currently operated in 22 public schools in Polk County and serves 1,143 children who are in great need on a weekly basis.
Long noted that in the coming year, they plan to target those schools that rate 75% or higher in the number of students eligible for the free or reduced-cost school lunch program. As of May 2013, one study showed that 78.6% of the children attending Hardee County public schools qualified for this lunch program. In Polk County public schools, 73% of the students qualified for the same program.
“With this money from Walmart, our goal is to expand SmilePak into Hardee County and to reach 1,500 students in Polk and Hardee counties,” she said.
Staff within each of the targeted schools will identify the children most in need. During the school year, those children will receive a backpack filled with nutritious food to take home each Friday afternoon. Promoting better nutrition for the children and their families, the SmilePaks include the most healthy, nutrient dense and shelf-stable options available such as canned fruits and vegetables and 100% fruit juice.
SmilePak was developed by Agape in response to the growing number of Polk County children who were either homeless, at risk of homelessness, or who were found to be without food during weekends when free school lunches are not an option.
In September 2013, The Florida Legislative Office of Economic & Demographic Research estimated that 28.3% of Polk County school age children live in poverty.
The Agape Food Bank, a program of Catholic Charities of Central Florida, is a food distribution warehouse in Lakeland, Florida serving nearly two hundred non-profit partner agencies in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties. It is part of the national Feeding America Food Bank network and is the only designated USDA approved provider serving the tri-county region. Their vision is that 100% of the hungry population in the community has access to an adequate supply of nutritious food. Their mission is to lead the fight to end hunger in the community by providing nutritious food and transforming lives through innovative programming, education, and hunger advocacy.