Jennifer Cario is unloading big bins of food in a small storage room adjoining the gym of Bentworth Elementary School in Bentleyville, Washington County, about an hour south of Pittsburgh.
It’s the typical elementary school fare -- boxes of granola bars, snack crackers and such -- but there’s heartier stuff, too, like canned goods and pasta sauce. It’s the kind of food meant to sustain low-income students over the weekend, when they won’t have access to the school’s free or reduced-price lunches. They’ll take the food home in blue grocery bags tucked into their backpacks each Friday afternoon.
For Cario, a marketing consultant, mom of three and founder of the nonprofit Bentworth Blessings, this has been a weekly tradition for the past four years. It started soon after her family moved to Bentleyville, when the elementary school principal explained to her how keeping kindergarteners in school through the lunch period had helped to improve test scores.
“So, I started doing some research and I started looking things up and finding that a quarter of our student population lives at or below the poverty level here, and half of the kids in our district qualify for free or reduced lunch,” Cario said.
Cario began volunteering for the Washington city Blessings in a Backpack group, but started her own Bentleyville chapter of the nonprofit soon afterward. Eventually, Bentworth Blessings would split off from the nationwide organization because Cario didn’t want the program to stop when the school year ended.
“Now, we do our weekend blue bag program, we do a grocery pantry through our summer months, and then over Thanksgiving and Christmas break, and next year, we’ll probably add in Easter break as well,” Cario said.
Bentworth Blessings also provides free hygiene items, and Cario said they’ll start offering on-site pantries at the district's middle and high schools in the next school year.
“The older kids, who are maybe a little more aware or self-conscious, rather than them getting that kind of flashy blue bag to take home, whenever they need to, they can go into this pantry and assemble their own bag of whatever it is they need at their house," Cario said. "We’ll have less waste, hopefully we’ll have a higher level of participation, and we’ll really be able to meet the different needs that pop up at that age.”
Bentworth Elementary School principal Susie Macik has been a big part of Bentworth Blessings from its inception. Macik said one family in her district couldn’t afford to host a wake after one parent died, so she called Cario to see if Bentworth Blessings could help.
“I’m like, ‘Can we make this happen for tomorrow?’ and the answer was, ‘Yes,’ so there was this whole meal that went to this family for after the funeral,” Macik said.
Bentleyville resident Kiley Mulshen said Bentworth Blessings has helped her family through the loss of their home in a landslide.
“Every weekend, we get food sent home that the kids eat for lunch and take in their school lunches, which helps a lot, because with a family of five and everything else, it’s kind of hard to make ends meet,” Mulshen said.
Cario said she believes the program is helping students achieve academically by keeping them properly fed throughout the week. She said the district's test scores have been rising steadily for several years.
“When I moved here seven years ago, I was going to put my kids in private school, because I’m like, ‘Well, it can’t be a good school.’ Thank God my kids go here -- and I say that on a regular basis -- because the education they get, along with knowing what they’re learning about people and how to take care of people -- it’s huge.”