Snow likely. Some mixed winter precipitation possible. Low 27F. Winds NNW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of snow 90%. About one inch of snow expected..

Snow likely. Some mixed winter precipitation possible. Low 27F. Winds NNW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of snow 90%. About one inch of snow expected.

New Castle School Board member Robert Lyles, left, puts containers of pasta into boxes to be sent home with students as part of the district’s weekend feeding program. David Purdy, a volunteer of First Presbyterian Church, oversees the operation.

New Castle School Board members George J. Gabriel and Anna Pascarella add cereal packages to the take-home food boxes for students.

Rich Litrenta, New Castle High School principal, helps with filling the weekend food boxes for students.

New Castle School Board member Robert Lyles, left, puts containers of pasta into boxes to be sent home with students as part of the district’s weekend feeding program. David Purdy, a volunteer of First Presbyterian Church, oversees the operation.

New Castle School Board members George J. Gabriel and Anna Pascarella add cereal packages to the take-home food boxes for students.

Rich Litrenta, New Castle High School principal, helps with filling the weekend food boxes for students.

Packing food boxes at First Presbyterian Church for hungry children was an eye-opener for several New Castle school board members, who volunteered to pack the boxes for hungry children who reside within the district.

A contingent of board members and school principals packed nearly 200 boxes of food for backpacks of students who might not have any other food on any given weekend.

The box packing goes on every week with the help of various volunteers from the school or the community. The boxes, which are sturdy and small enough to fit into backpacks, are sent home with the children every Friday.

Each child’s box typically contains two containers of pasta such as Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli, two packages of cereal, some shelf-stable milk, a nutritional snack bar and applesauce or some type of fruit.

Elementary principal Tabitha Marino, who coordinates the program for the district, explained that the contents of the boxes vary each week, but the idea is to provide kid-friendly foods that they can open and easily eat, that are shelf-stable (needing no refrigeration), and are non-peanut items.

Marino had recruited the school board members to help with the packing project, known as the New Castle Bread Basket program.

“This was the first time I participated, and I found it very rewarding,” school board member and retired superintendent George J. Gabriel said. “I’m proud of the dedication of our administrative staff. It’s impressive to see members of the community come together to help our students. I guess at the end of the day, that’s the best part.”

He commended Marino, who devotes a great deal of time to coordinate the program, adding, “there’s a lot of behind-the-scene work before we even get there.”

“I could not believe how many boxes were there, and it was so well organized,” said board president Stacey Fleo, who volunteered to pack boxes. “Kudos to Tabitha for initiating that.”

The weekend feeding helps ensure that no child in the district goes hungry over any weekend, Marino said. She explained that the lack of nutrition hampers the students’ learning, and the district wants them to have energy and be alert and ready to learn when they enter school on Mondays. Without a child’s hunger being met, it can become difficult for them to go to school and concentrate, she said.

“A lot of people don’t realize how many kids use this program,” Fleo said. “We really don’t understand how much a simple necessity like food matters for these kids.”

The district currently provides all of its students with free breakfasts and lunches daily. Additionally, the CANES after-school program provides dinner to participating students in the evenings. The Bread Basket program creates a feeding continuum for consistent nourishment, by stretching their feeding into the weekends.

The program was instituted in the district in 2014, and ever since then it has made parents and children happy, Marino said.

Teachers and other school personnel identify students they feel might be in need, Marino said. Guidance counselors or principals then call the homes of those students and ask the parents or guardians if they want their children to be in the program.

The district sends the parents a permission slip and asks for allergies and other information. When the slip is returned, that student receives a box of food to go home as a reliable food source for the weekend, she said.

Reflecting on its beginning, Marino said, that when the some students would return to school on Mondays, “we noticed they weren’t focused and they’d say their bellies hurt or they were hungry.”

Teachers, administrators, school nurses and other personnel learned, from talking to some of them, that when they left school on Friday after lunch, their next meal wasn’t until Monday breakfast at school, Marino said.

“We wanted to find a way for the kids to have an adequate supply of food on the weekends,” Marino said.

The district’s bread basket program is only part of a bigger feeding effort in Lawrence County. The initiative is incorporated into a larger effort spearheaded by Alice Garcia of New Life Baptist Church in New Wilmington, who runs the East Side Bread Basket Food Pantry for the entire city, out of Epworth Church.

Garcia also coordinates the Lawrence County Backpack Program for multiple districts, not just New Castle, providing food for backpacks for most schools throughout the county.

Garcia explained that her program also serves the Headstarts of Ellwood City and New Castle, plus the Coaches Closet at New Castle High School, a food pantry for older, high school students where they can go and help themselves without embarrassment.

There are 12 locations of the school backpack efforts altogether, Garcia said, adding, “It’s a busy little program.”

Garcia said that she lucked out in finding the sturdy white boxes when she stopped in a Pizza Joe’s for lunch one day and encountered Jessica Seminara, who became the mainstream for them, and they fit perfectly inside a student’s backpack.

“That has really changed our program,” she said. “It was a little God moment I had that day.”

Garcia networks with Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank and orders the food for the boxes, and each month, two tractor-trailers arrive with the deliveries and each school sends a representative to pick it up for the week. The program has been funded since its inception by a coalition comprised of the Knox, the Almira and the Hoyt foundations.

The district also accepts donations from the community to try to raise money for the effort, and it sometimes has its own fund-raisers to benefit the program.

“It’s been a real fun thing, I enjoy it,” Garcia said. “When Tabitha and (former district superintendent John) Sarandrea came to me, I was shocked. We’re already were running the largest pantry in Western Pennsylvania, and I thought we were already meeting the needs of the community. We were surprised to learn there were kids who were going home hungry.”

Preparing the boxes requires a steady stream of volunteers, both from the participating schools and from the community.

New Castle’s designated packing place for the boxes is at First Presbyterian Church. Marino coordinates New Castle’s volunteers who include members of school clubs, sports teams and the school board to fill the boxes. The senior high students receive community service hour credits for the work.

David Purdy a volunteer at the church, also reaches out to community organizations and churches to involve them in the packing.

“It’s an entire community/school approach,” Marino said. “We involve everyone in the community. It takes a village.”

“They have been wonderful,” she said. “Some call us midway through the year and say they don’t need any more, to please give it to another child in need.”

And while the food goes to children of any age, prekindergarten through 12th grade, more of the younger children receive it, Marino said.

“The kids love it, and they ask for it,” she said. “The younger kids cheer when it’s food day, they get very excited.”

Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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