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Group targets hunger in schools

After the 2013 PA Youth Survey showed 16.1 percent of Whitehall-Coplay School District sixth-graders did not know where their next meal was coming from, a group of concerned community members now known as the Whitehall-Coplay Area CTC Hunger Initiative began planning ways to alleviate the problem in the community.

The group has spread awareness, asked for help from churches and community members and provided new ways for families to receive fresh vegetables and other foods from the local food pantry.

Now they are preparing to target hunger in the area that drew their attention to the issue in the first place: children in schools.

This article is the fourth in a series following the Communities That Care group's efforts to curb hunger in the area and establish a basis for healthier eating for families in the community. The group came about when a local real estate agent, Shari Noctor, saw the numbers from the survey and wanted to do something about it.

Noctor said there are kids in the Whitehall area who have not been taught to nourish themselves properly and she wants to install programs in the school district to "teach from the bottom up instead of the top down" and educate young students about nutrition.

"Parents will give them a bag of potato chips, and that's their dinner. They don't get things they should be eating," she said. "They don't know what a tomato is."

Because of Noctor's efforts and the work of the local hunger initiative, the Whitehall-Coplay School District approved a program in August for the Kellyn Foundation to come into the third-grade classrooms and teach an "Eat Real Food" program in 13 of the classrooms for that grade. Noctor will be funding this year's program from the foundation, paying more than $3,000 for this year's seminar.

Eric Ruth, a co-founder of the Kellyn Foundation, said his organization has nutrition programs in 30 schools, including Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. The foundation offers a three-year program from third until fifth grade, educating elementary students on how to choose healthy foods.

"We teach about understanding what is real food and what isn't, how to read nutritional labels," Ruth said.

Dr. Lorie Hackett, assistant superintendent of the Whitehall-Coplay School District, said the district is looking into expanding the Kellyn Foundation program in the elementary school to also include fourth and fifth grades in future years. The school district doesn't pay for the program, so the foundation would need donations from other sources to continue the seminars in Whitehall.

"We want to try to do a little at a time and do it well instead of biting off more than we can chew in the beginning," Hackett said.

In addition to educating students about nutrition, the local hunger initiative is planning on directly giving food to students in the Whitehall-Coplay School District who are in the most need. Leah Saliby, an eighth-grade teacher who has had students tell her that they didn't have enough food at home, proposed bringing a Snack Pack Pals program to Whitehall.

Starting this fall, Snack Pack Pals would provide a pack of single-serving cereal, microwave foods, granola bars and other items to 40 students in grades 1 through 8 in Whitehall to take home in their backpacks for the weekends. Saliby said the program will cost around $8,000 for the next school year, and students from the school's Leo Club would help assemble the packages.

"We have the manpower; we just need the funding," Saliby said.

She added that members of the CTC hunger initiative are helping to secure donations of money and food to go into the packages. Noctor said Egypt Star Bakery has agreed to donate bread and cheese rolls to go into the children's packs, and other members of the initiative are looking into other sources.

"I'm just an English teacher who saw the data, and it broke my heart," Saliby said. "They literally need food to learn. There has to be something we can do in Whitehall to help these kids."

In two weeks, the next article will discuss the new breakfast program in the school district and how that will affect students in the area.

Shari Noctor, who organizes the Whitehall-Coplay Area CTC Hunger Initiative, will be donating the money to bring a Kellyn Foundation nutrition class to the school district's third-grade classrooms. PRESS PHOTO BY ROBIN EBERHARDT