Despite the pandemic’s impact on in-classroom learning, Arizona Brainfood is still feeding kids in need – including students at 13 Gilbert Public Schools elementary campuses.
Whether they are learning at home or go to school, the same need exists now as it did when the nonprofit started.
“We started in 2009 because I was talking to a teacher who said students were coming to school on Monday morning hungry and he would spend time trying to feed them,” recalled founder-President Ruth Collins, whose organization now serves students at 125 schools, most in the East Valley.
“That bothered me because I didn’t realize there were kids out there who were that hungry and who would go without food on the weekends. I was born and raised in Mesa and was surprised it was happening in Mesa. I’m a mother of four and it just made sense to me we do something.”
Collins talked to the teacher and introduced the idea of bringing a bag of food on Friday for kids to take home so they wouldn’t go hungry on the weekends. She noted that many children she is helping get free or reduced lunch at school through the week.
“But then there’s this small percent of kids who when they go home on the weekends, there’s no food for them,” Collins said. “So, those are the ones we’re looking for.
“Once the idea started rolling and I talked to a few people, I got a few sponsors,” said Collins. “We started in two schools with about 100 kids.”
Shortly after starting the program, Collins said, “It just snowballed. After just four years, we were in every elementary school in Mesa, which is about 55 of them. Then we had a couple of churches in Fountain Hills come to us and say, ‘We will sponsor two Fountain Hills schools if we can start those.’
“Then we started expanding to Gilbert, then Tempe and then we had a group from Chandler and Scottsdale come to us. Over these 12 years, we’re doing about 125 schools in the East Valley.”
Before the pandemic, Collins and her all-volunteer staff were delivering up to 3,500 bags of food weekly for the last several years. Now, about 2,500-weekend food bags are being sent home with kids.
“The schools are the ones who determine which kids need it,” explained Collins. “They know the kids the most. They know the families. We have a person in charge of brain food at each school we take bags to and they’re the ones who determine which kids need the food.
“Every week they email us a number. We don’t have names. We don’t know anything about the kids except a number,” adding the numbers change regularly because many families move frequently and are living in a shelter or motel.
“We’ve told every school, ‘If a child needs a bag of food, we’ll give you a bag of food,’” said Collins. “We don’t care what week it is if they’re homeschooled or not,” adding that all food is dropped off at elementary schools so kids/parents just need to find a way to pick it up.
The bags contain food items such as canned pasta, canned stew, tuna packs, beef jerky, peanut butter and fruit packs, fruit juice and chocolate milk.
“Food bags are meant for the individual,” Collins said. “We hand out a food bag, we’re making the assumption – although it’s not always true – that the child will go home and feed themselves. Every child in that family who is in elementary school will get their own bag. If a family has three children in elementary school, they’ll each get a bag.”
Students also get a 12-pack of tortillas every other week and a loaf of bread once or twice a month to help feed other family members. If there are preschool kids at home who are going hungry, an extra bag of food is sent home.
“When we started this, there were no backpack programs around here,” Collins explained. “Valley of the Sun United Way and United Food Bank have since started some. I think it’s great. If everybody in their area would take care of their schools and make sure their kids are being fed, I think that’s awesome.”
Prior to starting Arizona Brainfood, Collins had no prior experience in the non-profit world.
“Zero experience and zero desire or even the thought in my brain that this was going to be something I would do,” Collins said. “There were kids going without food and desperate parents trying to feed their kids and not being able to. We had no idea it would turn into this.”
The non-profit’s goal is to have all children returning to school on Monday mentally and physically able to concentrate in class.
“The reason we called it ‘brain food’ from the beginning, besides feeding children and making sure nobody’s hungry, is to make sure they can also be educated,” said Collins.
“If they’re hungry and if they’re wondering where their next meal is coming from, they’re not paying attention in school. And we want them to become educated to change the poverty cycle or whatever the problem they’re in.”
That change occurs when children can study and get an education, Collins said.
With some food over the weekend, she explained, “So hopefully they’ll come to school more, will stay in school longer, will get their education to help them provide for themselves and their families.