The good news is that our local public school system has a program aimed at low-income children who get free breakfast and lunch at school. Realizing that many of these children don't eat well at home on weekends, the schools and our food bank send backpacks of food home on Friday afternoon, enough for six meals. Kids bring the empty backpacks back to school on Monday morning to be refilled for the next week.
And the even better news is that the program is being expanded from 3,800 to 35,000, all the eligible elementary school students in the Jefferson County Public School System.
The bad news is what goes in the backpacks: granola bars, peanut butter, tuna, crackers, macaroni and cheese, cereal, juice boxes. Or more to the point, what doesn't go in the backpacks: no fruit, no vegetables.
We know that many poor people live in "food deserts," areas of town without decent grocery stores. As a result, it's difficult to get fruit and vegetables, even though we know they are essential to a healthy diet. Louisville has gotten various federal grants in recent years to help neighborhood stores install coolers so they can carry produce, so it's not that our local officials aren't aware of this problem.
Yet when it's time to stuff those backpacks, we're buying the food from Sysco, all processed and hermetically sealed products, with thousand-year shelf lives, the kind of edible foodlike substances you find in vending machines.
How much trouble would it be to put two apples, two bananas, maybe a tomato or a bag of baby carrots into each backpack? And maybe a nice whole-wheat roll instead of a package of crackers?
I know that crackers, peanut butter and a juice box are vastly better for a child than nothing. And the menu is blessedly free of candy, potato chips and beef jerky. But I also know that there's a long way to go before we hit the high end of the nutritional spectrum.