On Thursday mornings at a storehouse on McKelllips Road in north Mesa, volunteers line up along big bins, filling plastic bags full of juices, granola bars, and macaroni and cheese while upbeat music plays in the background. They’re filling weekend care packages for hungry children who will likely not eat outside of school hours or on weekends.
AZBrainfood seeks to help them.
The organization, in its 9th year, serves 3,600 children in 115 schools across 6 local school districts in Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, Fountain Hills, and Scottsdale.
Ruth Collins, founder, never imagined it would grow as it did.
Ruth tells of a day a few years ago that inspired her to start AZBrainfood: “I made it my subject of my prayers. I just said, ‘I have time, what do You want me to do? After I have taken care of my kids and my church and the necessities, then what do You want me to do?’”
It wasn’t long, Ruth says, before she found her answer while talking to a teacher one day in Mesa. He told her about the struggles with kids coming to school hungry on Monday morning. Some children got free breakfast and lunch during the school week, but on the weekends, a certain percentage wouldn’t have food. On Monday mornings, he would get these kids fed, taking time away from his teaching and money out of his pocket. Ruth, stunned, found similar issues elsewhere.
Ruth says at that point, she felt she found the answer to her prayers.
Collaborating with family and friends, they put together a “little food bag program” for kids. They put in some money and started in the fall of 2009. More money came than was expected, so they started at two schools serving 100 kids.
Ruth says, “I did not know if I was going to feed 4 or 40.”
The project expanded into AZBrainfood, so called because the goal reaches beyond food to get students educated. Children do so much better in school, Ruth explains, if they have good nutrition and are not thinking about empty bellies or stressing about where their next meal is coming from.
Reasons such as these, Ruth says, are why students skip school early on at this age, causing them to fall behind and potentially drop out. AZBrainfood wants to encourage students to stay in school and help break the poverty cycle.
Individual donors, grants, corporate sponsorships fuel AZBrainfood, a privately-funded charity. Each year, tax credit donations are accepted until April 15th.
Here, Ruth says, “Everybody’s a volunteer. . . . I feel like it is an organized neighborhood, [an] organized community. There is no paid staff; everybody in it is helping to make the community better.”
The program has grown through word-of-mouth. “Almost every school in Mesa has kids that take these bags. . . . everybody has a story about the kid who receives a bag and how they have seen it working,” Ruth says.
Participating schools have liaisons that work with the teachers, students and staff. There is also a position at the school, either a family liaison or social liaison, tasked with identifying specific families that need help.
“The thing that surprised me is the attitude at the schools has changed, which is awesome,” Ruth says. “Before, the schools had nowhere to send their kids to with this challenge. Now, everybody’s kind of on the lookout [and] the kids that need some extra attention are now getting it.”
Visit www.azbrainfood.org to get involved.