SOMERSET -- Shortly after school began at Somerset High School last fall, Principal Shannon Donnelly reached out to Dr. Lisa Ramsey and her husband, Jim, to see if they would be willing to help offset a “daunting” lunch account debt incurred by some students.

“These students had frozen lunch accounts, which prevented them from partaking in our hot lunch program. Of course Jim and I paid off this balance and I checked back in several weeks to see if these kids had a positive balance in their accounts and many did not,” Lisa Ramsey said. “I spoke again with Principal Donnelly who was concerned about many kids she observed not eating anything over the noon hour. After we hung up I read about the issue of hunger in public schools.”

According to Ramsey’s research, approximately 15% of children face food insecurity nationwide. The impact of hunger is seen academically, especially in math and reading comprehension, and emotionally with kids suffering from depression, anxiety. Those children have a higher rate of truancy and failure to graduate, Ramsey said.

“Several articles described what school districts around the county were doing about hunger and I latched on to the idea of providing a 'grab and go' snack bin in each school for all students to come and take a snack. By making snacks available to all kids you remove the stigma of hunger and those in need can get food just like any other student,” Ramsey said. “With Principal Donnelly's permission, I set up a grab and go bin that day in the high school office, stocked with bagels, sandwich crackers, pudding cups, fruit snacks ... . I called the program Food For Thought and it went over very well with the kids.”

Students consumed 100-120 snacks a day, Ramsey said, with her two sons bringing in snacks each morning and keeping the bins clean. However, the need for snacks and hot lunches didn’t stop with the high school. Ramsey was later contacted by the middle and elementary schools in Somerset about students in similar situations. That was when Ramsey realized she needed to team up with the local food pantry to find a better solution.

“Together we called on many local grocery stores, bakeries, bagel shops, etc., asking for their day-old bakery items,” Ramsey said. “A dedicated group of volunteers and I re-package about 1,200 bakery items each week that are then distributed to all three of our schools, around 1,500 kids.

"There is still enough bakery leftover to do a 'bakery give away' each Friday of the school year so that no high school student faces hunger over the weekend or school break. I continue to pick up the bakery every Sunday night and this provides bakery to the kids over the summer break as well.”

In January, the Ramseys added a second arm to Food For Thought in the form of a fund to keep .

“When the student comes through the lunch line and their account is frozen, they are stopped and asked to put their tray away. They leave hungry and humiliated in front of their classmates. With this fund, the cashiers now tell these kids that Food For Thought has them covered, just go eat,” Ramsey said. “At the end of the day, the district transfers money from the fund into the accounts of these kids. Thus the fund is administered by the school district but is completely community supported..”

The Food For Thought received a $3,000 donation from Random Acts, whose mission is to conquer the world one random act of kindness at a time, including addressing childhood hunger globally. For more information about Random Acts, visit randomacts.org.

In addition to her work helping students in the school district, Ramsey also has made an effort to attend school functions to talk with parents about the issue of hunger, the Food For Thought fund and to raise awareness about hunger.

“\I'm happy to say that from its inception in February to the end of school in June, the fund helped 270 students. Jim and I put in an initial $1,000 and even after serving 270 kids, the balance in June is just over $2,000. My goals for this coming year are to open the fund to breakfast and work with the district and food service vendor to begin a summer meal program,” Ramsey said.

Along with the snack bin, the Ramseys are hoping to add an offering during the district’s summer school program.

Not only has Food For Thought helped students throughout the district, but it has also inspired several groups of students to find their own way of helping out their classmates.

“The middle school kids sell popcorn and make about $10 a month, all of which they donate to the Food For Thought Fund, to help feed each other,” Ramsey said. “Several high school kids began a clothing closet, collecting, cleaning and displaying clothes for other students to take free of charge. I've had some of the high school kids that live on farms, offer to come and help me pick up the hundreds of pounds of bakery with their trucks after their chores are done. It's humbling.

“It takes a community to educate the next generation and the best way to teach generosity, compassion and citizenship is to demonstrate it to them.”

For more information on Food For Thought, contact Dr. Lisa Ramsey at jlriverhome@hotmail.com. The Somerset School District also has more information on the program under the “Food Service” tab on its website.