Every Friday, more than 600 Baltimore City and County students start their weekends a little less worried about where they’ll get their next meal. That’s thanks to the Baltimore Hunger Project, a nonprofit striving to “bridge the hunger gap from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.”
“I feel this is our responsibility,” says Lynne B. Kahn, BHP’s founder and executive director. “If we didn’t do this, these children won’t be eating. I grew up with a strong Jewish background and giving back was something my parents always modeled, so it’s what I know.”
Founded in 2014, BHP provides students and their siblings, who are identified by teachers or guidance counselors as food insecure, with meal bags to bring home for the weekend. Approximately one in nine individuals in Maryland are considered food insecure or “lacking in reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.”
“The bulk of the 23 schools we partner with are elementary schools,” says Kahn, a Park School graduate. “Being hungry impacts cognitive abilities and school attendance. These kids are our future and if we are able to fortify them with weekend food from an early age, the hope is they will grow to become productive members of society.”
Since its inception, BHP has distributed more than 41,000 weekend food bags. Each bag contains 13 items, including four cans of protein, a cereal box, shelf stable milk, juice boxes, four granola bars, fruit snacks and an applesauce pouch.
BHP spends approximately $3,000 a week feeding 612 students from September through June. The bulk of the food comes from the Maryland Food Bank, Costco, Wegmans and Sam’s Club.
“In each school, we are only supporting 5 to 7 percent of kids who are food insecure,” says Kahn, who says BHP sends home extra packages on long weekends and holiday breaks. “The need is tremendous, and I’m proud we are consistently able to provide some children with food every week.”
In addition to food, there are resources inside the bags providing information on what happens if utilities are turned off, how to receive additional health care support, how to sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and more, as well as notes of encouragement.
“We are trying to help educate our families in as many ways as we can,” says Kahn, who earlier this year raised more than $20,000 through a Facebook fundraiser for her 50th birthday. “I want to be sure we are thoughtful and realize these kids could be any of our kids. We treat these children the same way we would treat our own.”
A decade ago with her friend Laurie Haas, Kahn began Lynne’s Garage, a program where she gathered families in her garage and packed lunches for two local women’s and children’s shelters. During this time; Kahn began thinking about what happens to hungry children over the weekend. That’s how BHP was born.
In its first year, BHP supported 30 kids in two schools. In its second and third years, the organization expanded to 350 kids as a result of an affiliation with the Family League of Baltimore, and recently has grown to support over 600 students weekly.
A full-time CPA at Berkowitz and Shramko, Kahn relies on dozens of volunteers who come to BHP’s Cockeysville headquarters to unload food deliveries, pack food bags, provide front desk support, write notes of encouragement, deliver weekend meal bags to schools and assist in all aspects of the organization. There are also corporations that donate their time and money to pack food bags, and schools that send students for community service hours.
Malcolm Crane is one of those volunteers. A branch manager for Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp. in Towson, Crane knew he wanted to include philanthropy in his business. For every loan Crane’s branch closes, a portion of that money is donated to BHP. Crane also volunteers at the warehouse once a week.
“I don’t want to be a person who just writes checks,” says Crane. “My 7-year-old [child] wrote a note of encouragement that read, ‘Keep trying,’ and that made me very happy. No matter what the situation, social or economic, I want my kids to understand being nice and giving back is important.
“This organization is making a difference,” he says. “Volunteering at BHP and being surrounded by like-minded people is inspiring and makes me want to do more.”
For those on the receiving end, it’s a relief to have weekend meal bags come home with their children.
“Parents look forward to this, knowing they will have food coming home on Fridays,” says Letethia Nathan, case manager and social worker at Hawthorne Elementary School in Baltimore County. “My school has one of the highest Free and Reduced-Price Meal rates in the county. We have 500 students and 80 percent of those students qualify for FARM. That means 80 percent of our students are at or below poverty level, so weekend meal bags is definitely a need in our community.”
It’s not just food that many of these children are lacking. In some cases, the children served by BHP are homeless or living in hostile environments.
“You have times when teachers want these students to be present and forget what’s taking place in other parts of their lives,” says Jessica Pianko, a Baltimore County Public Schools social worker who facilitates BHP at Milbrook Elementary School. “We expect kids to show up, but if they are starving their brains aren’t working properly.”
About 45 students at Milbrook receive BHP meal bags each week. “It’s rewarding to be involved with an organization that provides these children with something they can count on,” says Pianko.
Says Kahn: “We all have choices in how we spend our time and where we donate our money. I think what attracts people to BHP is its immediate impact. The concept is simple, you see a hungry kid so you feed a hungry kid.”