One in five children in Ohio do not have a reliable source of food.

That means if you look into a classroom with 20 children, four students in that class could be struggling with hunger.

In addition, only 10 percent of children who receive free or reduced school lunches access summer meal programs.

The above numbers, from the Children’s Hunger Alliance headquartered in Columbus, show issues that go beyond a grumbling belly.

According to information from the National Education Association, the cost of food insecurity for children can include impaired development and school achievement. A hungry child suffers in his or her academic performance, and have lower math scores. They also are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late or not go to school at all.

Making sure a child gets an adequate breakfast can increase academic achievement, particularly in math, according to information on the NEA’s website. In addition, students who eat breakfast have better attendance, are more likely to be on time and have fewer behavioral and psychological problems.

There are several area organizations that are working to make sure children in the community do not go hungry during the summer and year-round.

Stow Bulldog Bags

The council chambers in Stow City Hall are generally the place where serious business is conducted. On a morning in April, the room was packed with more than 50 people, including from Allstate, Zeta Phi Beta at Kent State University, and the Stow United Methodist Church. They were socializing and were having a good time.

But make no mistake: their business was serious. All around, stacked on long tables set in a horseshoe formation, were piles of canned goods, boxes of food and more. On another table was a large stack of plastic bags. Those bags would soon be filled with food, which will then be distributed to children who face food insecurity in the Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools, courtesy of Stow Bulldog Bags Inc.

"If anyone ever tells you there are no more good people in the world, look to the left of you, and look to the right, and you will see a good person," said Bentley Hudson of Munroe Falls, right before the bagging began. In all, the volunteers bagged 515 bags for eight of the district's schools, and in less than an hour.

"It's hard to believe there are this many hungry people in Stow and Munroe Falls," said Jan Mather, one of the co-facilitators of Bulldog bags. "I heard it all the time, 'here, in Stow?'"

Yes, in Stow. Mather said that the number of children on the free or reduced lunch program is around the national average of about 21 percent. Bags have generally been distributed the last Friday of the month, unless there is a holiday or the schools are closed or there is another conflict.

"We chose to do this on the last Friday because that's when people's resources are usually depleted," Mather said.

According to information provided by Bulldog Bags, a 501(c)3 nonprofit which became incorporated in 2015, food is obtained through a partnership with the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, local food retailers, and food drives. Ten to 12 food items are packed by volunteers into heavyweight plastic bags, along with a personal care item.

However, Mather said that the volunteers with Bulldog Bags are aiming to expand their efforts in helping hungry children. Starting this month, the organization will start Bulldog Boxes for families of children on the free and reduced meal program within the district.

Those who pre-register for the program at www.bulldogbags.org can pick up a box of food July 21 and Aug. 11 (the first pickup is Saturday, June 23) at the First Christian Church, 3493 Darrow Road in Stow, Mather said. The boxes will include 10 meals and snacks in family-sized portions.

In addition, with the start of the next school year, children will start receiving Bulldog bags two weekends a month, and the program will expand to include the district’s ninth-graders, Mather said.

"The schools have been wonderful because as they see needs, they come to us and we try to fill those needs," Mather said.

For example, starting in the 2016-17 school year, the organization started putting together hygiene bags for seventh- and eighth-graders, Mather said. In the first bag in August or September, Bulldog bags includes a toothbrush and toothpaste.

"One kid said 'this is my first toothbrush,'" Mather said.

In the April bags, shampoo was included, and the coming bags will include sunscreen, Mather said.

"If a family gets SNAP, they can't purchase paper products or cleanliness items," Mather said.

Also in 2016-17, the Bulldog Cupboard was started at the high school for teens who needed breakfast or lunch, Mather said.

A good deal of work goes on behind the scenes in making sure the area’s children and teens have access to food, Mather said. There are volunteers who put together the menus and purchase items, those who pick up the items, prepackaging certain items such as soap, and delivering the bins of packed bags.

“It would be difficult to estimate the actual number of hours to prepare for the assembly of the Bulldog Bags,” she said.

Each month’s Bulldog Bag costs roughly $3, although this varies depending on what is included, Mather said. Donations come from the greater Stow-Munroe Falls community individuals, businesses, churches, service organizations, and family foundations.

Mather said she and Laura Root, who were involved in the Emergency Food Pantry at the United Methodist Church in Stow at the time, were contacted by a teacher about a student who had just moved to the area from Akron. The child, she said, “was used to getting a weekend bag of food.”

“We started researching the need and found that the number of Free and Reduced Applications in the SMFCSD was ‘on par’ with the statistics in Ohio and across the nation,” Mather said. “We talked to the school district about a weekend food program for the students on free and reduced, and researched programs across the nation and how the service was delivered to the schools.”

In May 2015, a survey were sent to prominent groups in the Stow-Munroe Falls area, which presented the need and asked how they could support a potential program, Mather said. Meetings were scheduled in July and August. In August, the structure of the group was formed. By January 2016, the first deliveries of bags took place.

“Laura and I have met with people from Cuyahoga Falls, Field Local, Mogadore, and most recently, Ravenna to share with them the steps that we took to get a weekend food program started in the Stow-Munroe Falls City School District,” Mather said.

For details or to donate, visit www.bulldogbags.org, email bulldogbags44224@gmail.com, or visit the Bulldog Bags Facebook page online.

Dare to Share

Stow Bulldog Bags isn't the only organization working to get food to students during the summer months.

The Tallmadge Blue Devils Dare to Share program,which was started six years ago, distributes about 55 children through the school year, said Stephanie Caicco. There are 40 members in the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America group; 12 "really focus on the Dare to Share program.

"During our academy the students fill the bags and get them ready for pickup," Caicco said. "Emily Tran and Sydney Marcum lead this group each week in accomplishing this. The group really enjoys in helping others."

The school guidance counselors will help Dare to Share identify students who could benefit.

"They are sent a permission slip to participate during the school year,” Caicco said. "For summer, we send another permission slip home to see if they would like to continue receiving the bags during the summer months."

Dare to Share "started as a growing response to poverty in our schools," said Kim Ray, former councilwoman. 

"In the entire school district of 2,500 students, approximately 34 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and it continues to grow," Ray said. "Ten years ago, 4 percent of the student body were living at poverty level. Now, it's 14 percent."

Donations of food "come from various places," Caicco said. The elementary schools host food drives for the program, and Tallmadge United Methodist Church deliver bags of food during the summer months.

"That's also an issue for people," Ray said. "They may have the money to buy the food but they may not have the means to get to the food."

Issues with food insecurity can happen anywhere, Ray said.

"A lot of people don't know how serious food insecurity is in this country," Ray said. "You have people choosing whether to pay the utility bill, pay for medicine or pay for food."

According to information from the Tallmadge United Methodist Church, bags are distributed each Friday to students in Dare to Share. During the school year, volunteers from the church run lunches from the high school to the middle school, elementary school and primary school. During the summer, volunteers pack and deliver the lunches.

Knights Caring for Knights

On May 24, many Nordonia High School students were waiting for graduation that evening, or at least counting the days until summer vacation.

But one group of students stuck around after school to accomplish one final task before the end of the school year: helping take care of their less fortunate peers. They loaded about 50 bags of food, which were later distributed to the district's schools, and inventoried what was left in the pantry so everything was set for the next school year.

"We don't know who we are packing for," said Olivia Dobbins, 18 and a member of the class of 2018. "It's anonymous."

Bags, which are distributed every week, generally include a breakfast item, lunch items such as macaroni and cheese, a fruit cup or pudding cup, a drink and a loaf of bread, Olivia said. Volunteers bag food every Thursday.

The program was started six years ago by Anne Bruno and her daughters, Catherine and Michaela, when they were at the high school.

This past March, a Quarter Auction was organized to help raise funds to Knights Caring for Knights, said Stephanie York, a teacher at the high school. York said the event raised $1,450, with 16 vendors donating items for bidding. York added she hoped to see this become an annual event.

According to information from the school district, the program is funded through donations from the community through the Nordonia Schools Foundation, with much of the food coming from local agencies or through the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank.

Bruno said that during the summer months, there will be a limited but open pantry at each of the school buildings. A storage bin with food staples will be kept in the vestibule area.

"We will keep those doors open from 7 or 7:30 until about 3 in the afternoon," Bruno said. "Students and their families can access these bins."

The bins will have items such as raisins and macaroni and cheese, Bruno said. There are no forms to fill out, and people can take what they need based on the honor system. This is the second year this district has offered this assistance.

Sarah Bon, who graduated this year, said said she was "surprised by the volume of need."

"I don't think the program has reached every corner yet, but we are growing," Sarah said. "I want everyone to feel they are taken care of in the district. The food helps families do better, lessens their stress; students do better in school."

Junior Kristine Yurko said that she felt volunteering with Knights Caring for Knights was "a way to give back to the community."

"A lot of us don't realize how many need the food we pack every week," Kristine said.

"I believe there is a big problem in the world," Olivia added. "Everything we can do in the community will help. I like being involved in a cause that is important to me."

For details, visit http://www.nordoniaschools.org online.

Our Community Hunger Center

In Twinsburg, Our Community Hunger Center works to combat hunger year-round. 

“We are a choice food pantry that supplies a seven-day supply of food to our families,” said Terry Piteo, the operations director at the center.

Piteo said that those who come to the center, since it is a choice pantry, can choose the foods they wish from what is available.

According to information provided by the center, Our Community Hunger Center provides food, personal hygiene items and paper supplies. Food includes meat, chicken, fruit, vegetables, roles and baked goods.

Our Community Hunger Center uses the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services TEFAP form for determining the eligibility of applicants for assistance. Applicants should call the office Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to set an initial appointment. It serves those in need living in Twinsburg, Twinsburg Township, Solon, Bentleyville, Reminderville, Aurora, Chagrin Falls, Glenwillow, Oakwood Village, Bedford, Bedford Heights, Walton Hills, Northfield, Northfield Center, Sagamore Hills, Macedonia, Hudson, Boston Heights, Peninsula, Streetsboro, and Stow.

The center first opened in 2013. According to the Akron-Canton Foodbank, which Our Community Hunger Center joined in March 2016, it served 8,735 people for the six-month period from July 1, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2016, an average of 1,455 people a month. 

In 2017 the organization provided a seven-day supply of food & hygiene items to 6,473 individuals, a monthly average of 539 individuals, according to information provided by Our Community Hunger Center.

The center is at 9733 Ravenna Road, Ste. G. in Twinsburg, near the historic Square. For details, call 330-963-FOOD or visit http://ochc-food.org/index.html online.

Blessings Boxes

In several areas, including Cuyahoga Falls, there are small. enclosed boxes around town. Often called “Blessings Boxes,” they generally run off the philosophy of “give what you can, take what you need.” They could contain a can of stew to supplement a meal. Or toilet paper. Or hygiene items. Or school supplies.

Jennifer LaFleur, who spearheaded the effort to install a Blessings Box near the First United Methodist Church, said the idea came from the concept of the Little Free Libraries, where people can donate or take books in small, outdoor pole-mounted structures. 

“I’m involved with the Little Free Libraries sponsored by the Friends of the Barberton Library,” LaFleur said. “I got the idea [for the Blessings Box] from hearing about a woman in Arkansas. She also got the idea from the Little Libraries and she thought, wouldn’t it be great to do something like that for food?”

The Blessings Box sponsored by the church is at Third Street and Portage Trail, and was first installed in late summer or early fall last year, LaFleur said. Church members try to “stock it daily,” she added. 

Anyone wishing to contribute to the Blessings Box can leave items directly in the box, LaFleur said. Items left can include “anything that is shelf-stable,” but should also keep the weather in mind. Some items, such as bottled water or canned goods, might freeze and explode in frigid temperatures. Items that can be donated include cans of ravioli, soups, macaroni and cheese, apple sauce, hygiene items and hand sanitizer.

“Some people have put in formula,” LaFleur said. She added that during the summer, people will sometimes donate school supplies such as pencils and glue.

“Whatever people have to give, we are happy to take it,” LaFleur said.

During the winter months, the church also has a clothesline hung near the Blessings Box with gloves, socks, mittens, hats and scarves for all ages available to those in need of protection against the wintry weather.

Donna Kaiser, the office administrator of the Northampton United Methodist Church, said one item that is snapped up are donations of toilet paper.

“That’s something you can’t get with food stamps,” Kaiser said. “I’ve heard it goes very, very quickly.” 

Full-size items also tend to be received better than travel-size, Kaiser said.

Kaiser said that while donations of items such as bars of soap and deodorant are useful, donors should watch the thermometer before placing items like this in the Blessings Box because they tend to melt in the summer heat. Items such as shampoo are OK, she added.

The Blessings Box was built about a year ago, Kaiser said.

“Someone from our outreach committee read something, and felt we should have it here,” she said.

As well as food and hygiene items, seasonal donations also are left, such as hats and gloves in the winter, and school supplies in the summer.

“We have someone who checks at least weekly,” Kaiser said. 

The Blessings Box at Northampton UMC is near the driveway entrance to the church, she said. 

“We wanted it to be accessible, but make it so people wouldn’t feel embarrassed about using it,” Kaiser said. “You don’t have to come in the church or anything like that.”

The First Christian Church, at the corner of Second Street and Stow Avenue, also stocks a Blessings Box outside the church.

Cereal drive

Children's hospitals, including Akron Children's Hospital, wanted to make sure breakfast for children is covered. So from April 27 through May 7, children's hospitals throughout the nation engaged in a friendly competition to collect boxes of cereal, with the theme "Breakfast Doesn't Take a Summer Vacation." In the end, hungry children are the winners. The Akron Children's Hospital and its branches collected 36,781 services of cereal, which was then donated to the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank and Second Harvest Foodbank of the Mahoning Valley.

The Summit Educational Service Center helped with the cereal drive, collecting 1,633 servings of cereal.

Donations are counted by the servings provided in each box, done by the servings information on the side of the box, said Carolyn Hofmann of Akron Children's Hospital.

"There really is a concern in the community," Hofman said. "There are a lot of schools that partner up with agencies to provide meals. One in four children in our community are food insecure. We need to take care of those children."

Reporter April Helms can be reached at 330-541-9423, ahelms@recordpub.com, or ??@AprilKHelms_RPC??