Hinton, West Virginia, 07 January 2015 | 07:00 AM America/Chicago Yummy Bags Improving Literacy On A Full Stomach Call it the hunger domino effect: When you’re hungry, there’s a good chance you won’t do well in school. When you have a hard time learning, your reading skills lag. And when you have a hard time reading, a whole host of other problems may emerge. So how to help? Start with nutrition. “There was a gentleman from a school district in Texas, and he said that they looked at the number of students that were not reading at grade level at fourth grade to determine the number of prison beds they would need ten years down the road,” said Debbie Clark, a retired teacher from Hinton Area Elementary School in Hinton, West Virginia. “The next day I looked into [how many of our students were reading below grade level,] and when I found out ours was above 57 percent, I thought, we have to do something.” Soon thereafter, Clark and Pat Mick, a fellow retired teacher, decided to tackle this problem by addressing student’s nutritional needs, noting the link between nutrition and school achievement. “If you’re hungry, you can’t focus, you can’t do your schoolwork, you’re always thinking about your stomach growling,” observed Karen Bollinger, a reading specialist with the school. “In the first three years of a student’s school[ing], they learn to read; after that it’s read to learn,” said Mick. The conclusion: these critical years help dictate future success. Yummy Bags: Food for Thought So this year, the two of them started Yummy Bags. Yummy Bags’ mission is to address both issues – education and nutrition. The organization provides nutritious meals to third and fourth graders with low reading proficiency at Hinton Area Elementary, in a community with a very high unemployment rate. Select students get to take home meals for the weekend when they’re not in school and getting the food provided there. In addition, books are also distributed with the hope students will continue to read, or someone reads to them, until they’re back at school on Monday. Launching in March 2014, Yummy Bags started their service to 15 students. By June, that number was up to 45 and now they are serving, on average, more than 60 students each week. “Someone cares about them.” The community has rallied to the cause as well. This past May, their votes of support helped Yummy Bags earn a State Farm Neighborhood Assist® grant of $25,000. To continue to build the education piece in tandem with the nutrition piece, this additional funding will help Yummy Bags launch an after-school tutoring program in 2015. Here, trained adult leaders will work with students on their reading proficiency. Thanks to this program, teachers are already seeing improvements. “Attendance has improved, because they know every Friday they’re going to get it and they need to be here – and [they know] someone cares about them,” says Bollinger. With programs like Yummy Bags, kids can focus on school work and not when they’ll be able to eat their next meal. As Bollinger puts it, “When we put the bag in their backpack, you see their face light up and a bright smile and you know that you’ve done something good for that child.” Amount of Yummy Bags Dispersed More than 27,000 food items were dispersed through the Yummy Bags program in 2014.