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Students say 'thank you' for special program's weekend meals

First-graders Samaya Pryor, 7, left, and Jackelin Pineda,

First-graders Samaya Pryor, 7, left, and Jackelin Pineda, 7, pose for a photo with thank you notes they wrote to Island Harvest at Park Avenue Elementary School in Westbury Friday, June 19, 2015. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Alyson Rodriguez stood in front of the projection screen in Park Avenue Elementary School's library Friday afternoon in Westbury.

"My favorite thing to eat in my weekend backpack meal is milk," she said softly, clutching a sheet of paper tightly. "I like to have milk and cereal on Saturday mornings."

She looked up at the 35 children clustered around small wooden tables in the center of the room. They clapped as she returned to her seat, and the next student participating in the food bank Island Harvest's "Weekend Backpack Program" stood up.

The program, which provides 175 Park Avenue students from low-income families with food for the weekend each Friday throughout the school year, has become an important support service for the school, guidance counselor Kimberly Grinnard said. And that's why the students and faculty were compelled to host a thank-you presentation for Island Harvest's organizers.

"They look forward to receiving it every week," she said of the students.

Alyson, 8, who is in first grade and is completing her first year receiving the meals, was one of five students to read messages of gratitude. The 35 students present represented each of the school's first- and second-grade classes, and more were featured in a five-minute video.

The students adorned their papers with colorful drawings of themselves eating or sharing their Island Harvest food. Each package contains enough for two breakfasts and two lunches or dinners, as well as snacks, juice and milk.

Later this month, when the school year ends, Island Harvest will have distributed 60,000 meals to 1,695 students across Long Island, president and CEO Randi Shubin Dresner said.

"These are the kids that are tagged 'troubled children,' 'hard-to-teach' children," she said. "The truth is that no, it's just that they're hungry and it's affected them in a lot of different ways."

Under a federal program, about 90,000 children on Long Island get free or discounted lunches during the school week. When Island Harvest first began the weekend program in 2006, Dresner said they were inspired by concern about those children on Friday afternoons regarding their weekend meals. Funding comes from a smattering of donors, including a grant from Newsday Charities.

"We hear kids that say 'Island Harvest, if you didn't give us this food, I'm not sure how my mom would be feeding us over the weekend,' " she said. "The real touching thing is that kids so young are so aware of this problem."

In the video, the Park Avenue children praised the program for a variety of reasons, saying they like the food because it is "healthy" and "tastes good." One little boy said he enjoys receiving the meals "so my mom doesn't have to cook for me."

"This sustains them over the weekend and they're able to get their homework done, to get their studies done," Principal Gloria Dingwall said.

The children giggled as they watched their friends and were eager to share their favorite foods, such as juice, milk, cornflakes and peaches.

Jackelin Pineda, 7, said she likes the applesauce best, and 7-year-old Samaya Pryor, also in first grade, loves the apple juice.

"When we get that food, we eat it up and we grow . . . " Dingwall began, with a questioning look at the kids.

"BIG," the students replied, clapping and cheering.


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