DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — The cafeteria scene at Somerville Road Elementary was heartbreaking for reading coach Missy Gann.
"You couldn't help but notice that some kids were eating everything on their plate and were still hungry," she said.
Somerville Road, like several other Decatur City Schools sites, started what's called a "backpack" program to make sure students have food to eat during the weekend.
But the program is bracing for tougher challenges.
As of last month, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — formerly referred to as food stamps — were cut for thousands of Alabama families. A family of four lost about $36 per month, according the state's SNAP office.
"We know this will pose additional challenges, but if a child is hungry in the classroom, this child will struggle to learn," Somerville Road Principal Teddi Jackson said. "We can't let this happen."
State superintendent Tommy Bice said last month he was hearing stories from principals about students' "food insecurity" becoming greater.
According to The Pew Charitable Trust, food stamp benefit cuts are affecting about 423,000 Alabama children.
DCS is in better position than most systems to help some of those children because the district's six Title I schools are piloting a "breakfast in the classroom" program.
Superintendent Ed Nichols said students and employees at Austinville, Banks-Caddell, Brookhaven, Frances Nungester, Somerville Road, West Decatur and Woodmeade receive breakfast each morning.
In the first 63 days of school, Child Nutrition Supervisor Julia Senn said the program has allowed Decatur to serve 45,506 more meals than it did during the same period last year.
"This has been a huge success," Nichols said.
Gann and Jackson agree, but they said the challenge to make sure students eat during the weekend is monumental.
A decade ago, the free and reduce rate in DCS was a little more than 40 percent. That number has increased every year and now is 66 percent.
Realizing that some kids were not getting the nutrition they needed over the weekend, Melissa Pendley started the backpack program at West Decatur Elementary three years ago.
Gann said several civic and community leaders donate food that is "discretely" handed out to students before they leave school on Fridays.
"If the home has eight children, we send enough to make sure everyone in the home is not hungry," she said.
Gann said outside groups also provide food during the holidays, and Decatur Youth Services serves meals at various sites during the summer.
"Some of the stories we hear are heartbreaking, but we know a student can't think about reading if he's hungry," she said.
About 300 students system wide participate in the back pack program.
Chief Financial Officer Melanie Maples said cuts to SNAP do not affect the estimated $3.5 million DCS receives to operate its cafeterias.
Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml