By: Dale King
Boca Helping Hands, the organization that provides on-site meals to the needy along with homebound foods for disadvantaged folks and families in Boca Raton and its environs, has added a new element to its mission.
BHH has partnered with six public schools to provide food-insecure elementary pupils with weekend meals, snacks and beverages for the remainder of the school year.
The revived BHH Backpacks Program will ensure that 348 children at grammar schools in Boca, Delray and Boynton Beach will stay fed when they head home on Fridays. Additional schools are expected to join in later in the school year, said Greg Hazle, executive director of Boca Helping Hands.
“Without this help, these children might not have enough to eat over the weekend,” he added. “We’re pleased to be able to provide these meals.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, instead of receiving backpacks full of food at the end of each week and returning the empty carry cases to be refilled the following week, each child now brings home a “backpack in a box” home each Friday, filled with six meals, three snacks, two juice boxes and two shelf-stable milks.
Youngsters who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches are eligible to receive the box of sustenance for the weekend. “It’s said that more than 60 percent of students in some area elementary schools qualify while other statistics say that 60,000 pupils in total are considered food-insecure. Many go to bed hungry.”
When schools closed last spring due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Boca Helping Hands provided its remaining Backpack food for the 2019-2020 school year to the Achievement Centers for Children and Families and Boys and Girls Club of Boca Raton so kids in those programs would continue to have food to eat on weekends. Those meal distributions continued through the summer.
When schools got the OK to open for the 2020-2021 school year – and children were able to return to classes – BHH “restarted the program, but we renamed in ‘Backpack in a Box.’ This made it more convenient. Students receive a box of food to take home every Friday and they do not have to return it. They get another box the following Friday,” said Hazle.
The executive director said BHH does not have contact with participants because of privacy laws. Food pickups are arranged through the county school department.
“We hear from the school administrators and the stories are always heartwarming,” he said. “Meeting their nutritional needs helps pupils with their schoolwork.”
Another organization helps. “Members of the Junior League of Boca Raton show up and help pack the boxes on Thursday nights.”
The weekend food program is catching BHH at the same time it is renovating and enlarging its food warehouse capabilities at the rear of the Remillard Family Center, where Boca Helping Hands programs have been housed for 10 years. Hazle said BHH acquired the former Warehouse Pub restaurant across from the Remillard Center and its transforming it into another food warehouse.
“It used to be that we used 350,000 to 400,000 pounds of food a year,” he said. “Now, we are using more than three million pounds annually. We are doubling our storage capacity.”
Boca Helping Hands is a community-based nonprofit that provides food, medical and financial assistance to meet basic human needs as well as education, job training and guidance to create self-sufficiency.
BHH also awards scholarships for qualified candidates to attend accredited vocational training classes and offers free English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes and courses in nutrition and other life skills.