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Hero Teachers Feed Kids Out of Their Own Pockets

A group of New Mexico teachers created a program to help food insecure students and make sure they don’t go hungry.
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The day's lesson isn't the first thing on Marvin Callahan's mind after the first school bell rings. Instead, the Albuquerque, New Mexico, teacher wonders whether his students have eaten.

His routine begins by asking each one of his first-grade pupils what her or she ate for breakfast that morning.

"I have kids that come to school every day, and they're hungry. They come to school, and they're just unsure," said the Comanche Elementary School teacher. "I have seen it with my own eyes,"

Every day, the 20-year veteran teacher spends a chunk of his own salary to feed hungry kids in his classroom. For the kid who came to school on an empty stomach, Callahan either sends the child to the cafeteria or simply walks over to the supply closet behind his desk for some food. Many teachers use $40 a month of their own cash to buy supplemental food for these hungry children.

It's a practice that isn't uncommon in the nation's schools. In fact, 73 percent of teachers have hungry students in their classes, according to a report issued in 2013 by the advocacy group No Kid Hungry.

For two years, New Mexico has ranked No. 1 state in childhood hunger, with 1 in 3 children growing up without a steady supply of food. More than 60 percent of the students qualify for the federal free or reduced-priced lunch program at Callahan's school.

Callahan said the school lunch is the last meal of the day for many students.

"I could not get the image out of my mind — these little kids going home to empty pantries, empty refrigerators, empty stomachs," Callahan said. "It explained why some kids were having such a hard time concentrating in class and making progress. Could you on a diet of dry ramen noodles?"

So, he began stocking his classroom with snacks on a regular basis.

"At least, if I couldn't do anything else, I could at least have food available at school, and my kids could have something to eat," he said.

Then, he began to think about what his kids were facing after Friday's dismissal bell.

"Kids were coming up to me and saying, 'I don't want to go home for the weekend.’ Not that they didn't want to be at home with their families, but that there wasn't enough food to eat."

So Callahan and the school counselor, Karin Medina, started a backpack program for the Comanche students who need the most help on the weekend. Every Friday, kids from 25 families get meals and two snacks to take home, enough to fight their hunger pangs until Monday arrives.

Callahan knows he doesn't have enough food to feed every hungry child in his school.

"We are doing what we can. I wish we could help more. But I'm a teacher. I don't make a lot of money," he said.

The Comanche backpack program is not an official nonprofit, nor does it have any outside funding. The program doesn't even have a name. Even without a name, it serves as an example of community generosity, which has others aiding it. A local business brings by boxes of food weekly, and a Boy Scout troop has donated money twice this year.

The Comanche faculty, Principal Rena Highland and the support staff are primarily the people funding the program and using their own modest means to send some security home with the food insecure kids in their care need. This is not always easy, Callahan says.

"I know where the hearts are of the people who come to work at Comanche Elementary School. And their hearts are for the children," Callahan said. "Some of these folks are young and raising families themselves. They've taken something from their own families so they could provide for these kids."

For Callahan, the sacrifice is worth it.

"The kids in my care walk into my room knowing that I care," he said. "And they walk out knowing that I care."