Grow Our Kids program at Salem Elementary in Apex helps hungry families

aramos@newsobserver.comApril 22, 2014 

— Sam LoPiccolo was a new mother in March 2012 when she began to wonder about families that didn’t have enough food for their children.

What about those who were left hungry?

“The thought of children, and their parents not being able to provide for their children, affected me deeply,” said LoPiccolo, who lives in Apex. “There are a lot of single working moms, working parents who don’t know where their next meals are coming from.”

LoPiccolo reached out to the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina and did some research about local resources. From there, the Grow Our Kids program was born.

LoPiccolo and her sister, Jessica Robinson, co-founded Grow Our Kids as a way to collect food for needy families at Salem Elementary School in Apex. Now she hopes other people will duplicate the program in other schools throughout the Triangle.

The group at Salem Elementary serves about 80 children from 21 families at the school, and it partners with the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.

The food bank provides canned goods, pasta, cereal and other non-perishable items. Grow Our Kids supplements the boxes with donations of fruits, vegetables and healthy snacks from the Western Wake Farmers’ Market and other local groups and businesses.

LoPiccolo also relies on her network of family, friends and community groups for donations.

About 21 percent of Salem Elementary School students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Some schools in Wake County have many more students who qualify, but LoPiccolo said she saw an unmet need at Salem, especially when students are tracked out of the year-round school.

Grow Our Kids delivers two to three boxes of food to its families during the three-week track-out breaks four times throughout the year.

“That’s when they lose access to a school-provided lunch,” LoPiccolo said of students. “It gets a lot tougher, even if families are using other kinds of public programs, to spread what’s in their pantry when all of the children are home.”

Melissa Connor, a social worker for Wake County schools, delivers the food to families.

“I’ve heard many times when I am talking on the phone with parents or when I stop by to deliver the boxes, ‘I’m so glad you brought this because I didn’t know how I was going to feed my child,’ ” Connor said. “Sometimes they are overwhelmed (by the generosity). This year we’ve had a few families that are new to our school and the program. They are in shock (because) they expected a few things of tomato sauce or bag of pasta.”

Boxes also include some extra-special things, like cookies and stocking stuffers during Christmas. The program helps the whole family, not just the students.

“We have two families with babies,” Connor said. “Sam put together boxes full of formula and baby food and children’s books.”

LoPiccolo doesn’t personally get to see the impact her group has on families. But she doesn’t mind. The point is simply to help.

She remembers one student’s story that broke her heart.

“Right around when we first started, we had one student identified by a teacher,” LoPiccolo said. “They had a new student in kindergarten, and the teacher noticed she was going through the other kids’ bookbags. She told the teacher it was because the only thing she had to eat was an orange the night before. We were able to get a box to that family.”

LoPiccolo hopes people will start Grow Our Kids programs at other schools.

In the 13 counties served by the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, more than 264,000 people are at risk of going hungry. Of those, more than 93,500 are children.

LoPiccolo said it takes only weeks to get a Grow Our Kids program up and running. She has about 20 volunteers who help sort, collect donations and pack boxes.

There is a Charlotte chapter in the works.

“Our whole model is micro-minded,” LoPiccolo said. “It’s community-level. Everyone takes a little bit of the work so it’s not overwhelming for any one person.”

Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews

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