Helping hungry children

The Food 4 Kids backpack program sends weekend meals home to nourish local school students and their siblings.

Cruz Collins, 13, left, and his brother, Chase, 17, right, volunteer to pack up food for students at the Food 4 Kids Program location at Interfaith Emergency Services on SW 2nd Street in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2024.

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Posted January 30, 2024 | By Andy Fillmore,

The Food 4 Kids program began 20 years ago when a principal saw a student leaving school with a soggy pocketful of spaghetti noodles and sauce.

“The principal asked the student where he was taking the spaghetti and he said, ‘To my brother, he has no food,’” said Teesha Garcia, manager of the Food 4 Kids program, which started in 2004.

The program is an outreach of Interfaith Emergency Services, in partnership with Marion County Public Schools, with a mission of providing weekend food for students and their siblings. The principal who saw the student with a pocketful of spaghetti was also a member of the IES board of directors, Garcia explained.

According to the IES website, the backpack program was created to provide food for at risk children who qualify for free lunch. School guidance counselors offer referrals for children to receive a backpack. Food 4 Kids provides a rolling backpack with enough food for each child in the household to have six weekend meals. Volunteers deliver the food to the school, tagged for each child. The child takes the backpack home on Friday and returns it on Monday.

The outreach began with about 50 children at two local public schools. Last school year, the program provided 273,144 meals for 45,695 students, using 13,699 backpacks at up to 35 schools. The meals were provided at a cost of $128,323, with 952 volunteers working 1,892 hours. In a first-ever summer program in 2023, families picked up 4,590 meals for 128 children.

A MCPS spokesperson said the school system currently has 1,200 children attending who are considered homeless and that “the number increases daily.”

Teesha Garcia, the manager of Food 4 Kids, left, and Carissa Gibson, the assistant manager, right, fill bins with food for students in Marion County at the Food 4 Kids Program location at Interfaith Emergency Services on SW 2nd Street in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2024.

Gloria Robeson has served as a family engagement liaison at Howard Middle School for two years.

“I work with Food 4 Kids on a weekly basis and sometimes daily if there is an emergency need. Food 4 Kids is a main artery for our families. They provide nutritious food to families that otherwise wouldn’t have food in the home,” Robeson wrote in an email.

Robeson indicated when she started working with the program that four students were on the backpack list and now 14 HMS students are on the list.

“Families that don’t have transportation, we deliver to them. The students are very excited about getting the backpacks. Without Food 4 Kids, some children may not get a meal at home every day. There have been many studies conducted showing nutrition has a direct impact on student performance. Food 4 Kids is helping us bridge that gap one family at a time. We appreciate all the work they do,” Robeson wrote.

“All children under 18, living in the home, are provided meals through the backpack program, with our largest current household size of 11,” Garcia stated.

A backpack of food for a student is shown at the Food 4 Kids Program location at Interfaith Emergency Services on SW 2nd Street in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2024.

Food 4 Kids meals are packed in a small building downtown, where Garcia and Assistant Manager Carissa Gibson work with volunteers and keep track of the number of meals for participating students by school. Jessica Vega is director of the overall program.

Food to refill the backpacks is loaded in large plastic bags and delivered to the schools. Weekly meal items can include applesauce, ramen noodles, soup, oatmeal, cereal bars, tuna, canned veggies or beans, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, jelly, rice, spaghetti sauce and pasta. Program managers purchase nutritious foods priced reasonably.

“The bulk of program food is purchased at local wholesale stores and grocery stores, although some food is donated,” Vega stated by email.

The program depends on donations of time and resources from individuals, churches, businesses and organizations. The average cost per child is approximately $25 a month.

Volunteer Michelle Collins, right, packs up food for students at a school with Melvina Brooks, left, and Chase Collins, 17, center, who are also volunteers, at the Food 4 Kids Program location at Interfaith Emergency Services on SW 2nd Street in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2024.

The program is supported about four times a year with food supplies from Hunger Fight, a Jacksonville-based nonprofit that supplies food for needy children and other with “hunger needs” in North Central Florida and helps in cases of natural disasters.

Donations such as a recent check for $2,500 from the Knights of Columbus Council #14222 of Saint Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Summerfield go directly to purchasing food for the program. That donation will buy meals for 100 children for one month.

Garcia noted that the volunteers and the key to the success of the program.

“The Food 4 Kids program would not be able to provide this service without the use of our many faithful volunteers. With only two staff members working approximately 20 hours a week, the heavy lifting is truly done by the volunteers. We have approximately 75 volunteers per month, generally two to three hours per week, per person,” Garcia wrote.

Melvina Brooks, a retired CNA and program volunteer for over a year, is one of those who gather at the small storehouse at least once a week to pack the food. Michelle Collins and her sons Cruz, 13, and Chase,17, have been volunteering for six months. She said the family motto is they have an opportunity and “get to” help children in need.

“Volunteers help pack bags and deliver the bags using their own vehicle and gas,” Garcia offered. “Our volunteers are the backbone of this program, and we love them like they are our family.”

To learn more about how to donate or volunteer for Food 4 Kids, go to or call (352) 620-8239.

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