ALICE shines light on the importance of food drives

December 13, 2016 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Not all of us have pantries that would be the envy of a doomsday prepper. And there are probably more of us who are closer to food insecurity than we might think.

Students are wrapping up their holiday food drives in public schools across the state. They often get very enthusiastic about filling up those cardboard boxes. It might be tempting to grab a dusty can of peaches from the back of the pantry; toss it in your child’s backpack and say, “You are good to go.”

But ALICE says there might be a lot more to the story.

ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The recent ALICE report from the United Way of New York has some stark analysis and data.

ALICE households are those that live above the federal poverty level but are not earning enough to “get by” based on a Household Survival Budget that uses conservative estimates of monthly expenses for housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and taxes, according to the United Way report.

The study found that 44 percent of the 7.3 million households in the state were below the ALICE threshold. About one third of these households are below the federal poverty level.  This means nearly 2.1 million households in New York are ALICE  – potentially living on the edge. The data shows this figure grew 8 percent from 2007 to 2014.

“Our report shows that this is not an urban or rural issue — it affects every corner of our state,” CEO of the United Way of the Greater Capital Region Brian Hassett said in a release accompanying the report. “Too many New Yorkers find themselves above the poverty line but below the economic line that allows them to provide health care and educational advantages for their children, and to save for the future.”

So what does this mean for parents, students and for schools?

Robert Mackey is the superintendent of Unadilla Valley Central School. His district is in a hardscrabble corner of rural New York, but he said many of the events that put families in crisis can happen anywhere. That point of view is also supported by the ALICE data.

“We have seen several things cause a family to move from not in crisis to in crisis. The two biggest have been health issues for someone in the family that create a significant burden,’’ Mackey said.  “We have had families where one bread winner is diagnosed with cancer, for example, and the illness forces the spouse to miss more work for appointments than they have time available for and they need to take unpaid days. They then may have to COBRA their health insurance or may lose their job entirely.”

This all has an effect on learning because the stress of being in crisis does not end when a student walks through the school’s doors.

‘’We have seen kids completely change their personality, we presume because going home for a weekend may mean a lack of two meals per day,’’ Mackey said. ‘’Others have stolen from the lunch line. Our free table in the cafeteria rarely has food left on it. Another side effect of this is a lack of ability to focus on learning.”

Kerry Leary is the Nutrition Resource Manager for the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. It’s a busy time of the year for the food bank, which helps supply food pantries throughout a 23-county region.

Food pantries provide a safety net for families that can fill the gap during that timeframe when a crisis or life circumstance hits and when public assistance, such as unemployment or SNAP benefits, takes effect.

“It does take time to apply for assistance,” Leary said.

The holiday period can be an acute time of financial stress for families, but the need for food to fill the gap remains all year, according to Leary.

Backpack programs are “becoming a huge thing,” Leary said.

The programs, which involve backpacks stuffed with food products, typically run throughout the school year and are a way to help get families through the weekends when they can’t count on meals at school.

The ALICE report also notes this: “Household income is fluid, and ALICE households may be alternately in poverty or more financially secure at different points during the year.”

Leary encourages schools that do food drives to promote healthier giving. She distributes a flyer that details some of the better products students can give.

They include, but are not limited to:

Vegetables and fruits

  • Low sodium or no-salt-added canned vegetables
  • 100 percent juice
  • Unsweetened dried fruit/raisins
  • Salsa


  • Lower sugar cereal
  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa

Protein products

  • Canned fish packed in water
  • Canned chicken
  • Canned beans
  • Unsalted nuts

Calcium-rich foods

  • Shelf stable milk
  • Powdered milk
  • Sardines
  • Canned collard greens

We have all heard stories of hardship from friends, family and colleagues. Many of us have played central roles in these stories. Life can change in an instant. ALICE is, has been or can be us. Next time there is a food drive at my children’s school, I’m going to think of ALICE.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

Copyright ©2016 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

Tags: , , , , , , , ,