Giving a little boost: prototyping weekend food access resources to support students experiencing homelessness in Boston Public Schools
Tariana V. Little was a summer fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and is a public health doctoral student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
One in 16 students in Boston Public Schools (BPS) are homeless. That is, they lack a stable, adequate place to sleep at night. In addition to housing, food can be a struggle. BPS offers free breakfast and lunch to all students during the week. But for students without stable housing, what, when, or where will they eat on weekends? One question for my summer project was:
How do we make the 68 hours between Friday afternoon and Monday morning less stressful?
In 2017, the City of Boston allotted over $1 million for the Department of Opportunity Youth to fund individual schools to meet the needs of homeless families in BPS. Schools have flexibility in using these funds; some have hired support staff, others have expanded clothing closets.
One school, the Thomas A. Edison K8 School in Brighton, MA, worked with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) to use these funds to create a weekend “Boost Bag” program, which gives students in need a bag of meals and snacks on Fridays. Our second question was:
How could we replicate the Boost Bag in other schools to create a scalable program?
This is a big question, and my summer work was to design and implement small prototypes that could get us closer to answers. Plus, there were many constraints:
- Foods must be lightweight, shelf-stable, nutritious, and meet City of Boston regulations
- We have to find partners willing to experiment with us this summer
- We have no money for any of this.
I soon became an investigative journalist. I researched online for weekend food backpack programs and interviewed stakeholders, including BPS staffers, school personnel, and non-profit leaders. Gleaning insights from two models in Massachusetts — the Edison Boost Bag (in partnership with MONUM) and the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program (in partnership with Food For Free), a staple in Cambridge Public Schools since 2012 — I did as MONUM does and turned constraints into creative challenges:
- Could we also get food donations?
- Could willing partners stay on past the summer?
- Could we align existing resources to reduce costs to distributors (e.g. schools)?
Finding answers to all of the questions was possible because of invested stakeholders and strategic planning. The BPS Department of Opportunity Youth made key referrals to the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot School. Additionally, I was able to network through existing MONUM relationships, like that with Project Hope. Through yet another connection, we partnered with the Red Cross Boston Food Pantry and KIND Bar for food donations.
At the Frederick, we distributed the new Boost Bag prototype in two ways: school visits and home deliveries. For school visits, we used a choice model, a farmer’s market style setup that gave families flexibility in picking foods that they liked, cooked, needed, recognized, or could carry. In essence, it respected their dignity. For home deliveries, families received the entire bag of meals and snacks. All families, however, received food resource materials, food recipes, and met with the Frederick’s Family Engagement Director for a needs assessment. At Project Hope, we used a choice model with more food items and offered food resource materials and recipes.
The Boost Bag prototype this summer illuminated many insights, including:
- We can iterate the Boost Bag model in different settings and with different groups
- Food can be sourced for free and meet logistical, nutritional, and legal needs
- Schools are ideal distributors because of their structural supports.
Looking ahead, the Frederick — Red Cross prototype will extend to the 2018–19 school year. Using best practices from the Edison Boost Bag and the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program, we will provide lightweight, shelf-stable ready to eat meals and snacks as well as enlist staff and volunteers to pack and distribute the bags.
We hope this pilot inspires other BPS schools and City of Boston leaders to see the Boost Bag program as a way to support their homeless students and families.
This project was possible thanks to the contributions of MONUM, the Office of Food Access, the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot School, Project Hope, the Edison K8 School, Boston Public Schools’ Office of Opportunity Youth, the Red Cross Boston Food Pantry, KIND Bar, and Roche Bros.