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Some students go hungry when school is canceled

By: Maria Miller

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- It's something many of us probably don't think about while our kids cross their fingers hoping for another snow day: Many of their classmates are going hungry.
Out of 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, Greater Johnstown ranks sixth in families who are considered census poor. For many of those families, school meals are the only food their children receive each week. So snow days are truly taking away a vital part of their development.
"Accessing care that we give in our schools is one thing, the academics is another thing, but we also give nutrition: food," said Dr. Geral Zahorchak, superintendent of Greater Johnstown.
In Cambria County, Greater Johnstown leads school districts with the highest percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches at 82 percent. The next-highest is Ferndale Area at 64 percent, followed by Conemaugh Valley, Blacklick Valley and Portage Area, each a little more than 50 percent.
"When students don't have access to it because of something like a snow day, that becomes problematic," Zahorchak said.
Most school districts are having to cancel, delay or dismiss early more often than not this winter, meaning hundreds of children are not only left without a warm place to go, they're left hungry.
"For some of those kids, it means no access to healthy, nutritious food for more than just a few of them Zahorchak said.
And that's where the community comes in, through initiatives like the Backpack Project.
"We're putting animal crackers, breakfast bars, non-perishable milk and cereal in this bag," explained Emily Wentworth as she packed a meal.
"These kids are hoarding meals that they get and they will try and eat as much as they can during the school hours before Friday lets out and that's all they get throughout the weekend," Wentworth said.
The Backpack Project works to keep them fed, currently providing about 150 children in Johnstown with six non -perishable meals to get them through the weekend. But school cancellations are making that difficult.
"When that happens, we have to deliver these bags of food to the kids at their homes and sometimes that can be a problem when the roads are bad, "Wentworth said. "And so we just try and work with the families to get the food to the kids as best we can."
The Backpack Project is currently only offered in Johnstown. Organizers are hoping to expand it to the rest of the county, but for that to happen, they need donations and volunteers.
Anyone wishing to help can call the Learning Lamp and ask for Wentworth at

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Edgar Snyder

Washington Times