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‘Fern Street Summer Backpacks’ to Provide Meals to West Hartford Public Schools Students

From left: Suzanne Oslander (Community Partnerships Manager for the Department of Social Services, Town of West Hartford), Katherine Wilson (Fern Street Backpack Program Coordinator, Universalist Church of West Hartford), Jim Palma (Community Network Builder, Foodshare) and Carol Waxman (Children’s Services Librarian, Noah Webster Library, Town of West Hartford) have collaborated to make the Fern Street Backpack Program a reality. Courtesy photo

The Fern Street Backpack Program has been awarded a $3,000 Foodshare Partnership Grant to fund a summer weekend food support program for qualified West Hartford Public Schools students.

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The Universalist Church of West Hartford is offering its first 10-week “Fern Street Summer Backpack” program, as part of its Fern Street Backpack Ministry Program. This program will provide food support for the 100 West Hartford Public School students who participated in a backpack program during the school year.

“I heard from a number of school staff that the weekend food programs offered to their students were so helpful, but they end in June,” said Katherine Wilson, coordinator of the Backpack program. “The summer can often be an even harder time of year for their families with food insecurity, and a summer assistance program is really needed in town.”

Wilson worked with the West Hartford Hunger Action Team (HAT), led by Jim Palma of Foodshare, to determine the feasibility of offering a summer program. Carol Waxman of the Noah Webster Library and Suzanne Oslander of the Department of Social Services offered their time and resources to develop this pilot program. In addition, Roszena Haskins and Andy Morrow, both of West Hartford Public Schools, offered their energy and experience to the growing partnership.

Wilson said that it soon became clear that there wasn’t a question of if it could be done, just how. “Meeting with Martha Church, director of Library Services, was another great turning point in this process,” said Wilson. “She was yet another town leader eager to extend herself and her staff to our youth residents and their families in need of support.”

Karen Polmatier, of the Faxon Branch Library, was in strong support of using her library as another point of distribution for the backpacks, given the high number of public school students in that neighborhood needing assistance. With all the players aligned with a shared vision, along with a $3,000 partnership grant awarded from Foodshare on May 9, “Fern Street Summer Backpacks” became a reality.

Rev. Dr. Adam Robersmith and Food Ministry Chair Sara Conner, both of the Universalist Church of West Hartford, were in support and offered the Church’s financial support and community expertise. “No one should go hungry – ever – but certainly not because school has ended for the summer,” said Robersmith. The determination of all involved in our Backpack program has resulted in wonderful collaborations that we hope will continue to make sure that children and families are fed all year – this summer and beyond.”

Fern Street Backpack Program is a ministry of the Universalist Church of West Hartford aimed at addressing hunger in our area through its five programs serving an average of 300 clients a week. The Backpack program runs for 34 weeks of the school year and serves up to 50 qualifying West Hartford Public School students from five elementary and three middle schools. Each Friday, backpacks filled with eight pounds of nutritious food items are delivered to the schools and provide meal support for families over the 68 hours from free lunch on Friday to free breakfast on Monday.

The new summer program is an innovative joint effort between the Universalist Church and West Hartford Social Services, and it will run the duration of the school summer break. In addition to providing needed weekend food support, “Fern Street Summer Backpacks” plans to work with its partners and backpack families to find ways to improve access to food support in town, improve the school backpack model, and address issues of stigma, barriers to access and equity.

If you would like to learn more about the “Fern Street Summer Backpacks” or other Food Ministry programs at the Universalist Church of West Hartford, visit their website at www.westhartforduu.org/food_ministry.

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