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Denene Owens

Denene Owens is one of approximately 30 volunteers who work to provide weekend meals to Columbus Public Schools' students. It's all part of A Place at the Table's Food for Thought program.

Editor's note: On Oct. 6, The Columbus Telegram began a multi-week initiative highlighting different aspects of the Columbus Area United Way, a nonprofit organization committed to focusing resources to measurably improve the education, health and financial stability of the community. Part of that effort includes supporting early education programming by helping fund programs that help students improve in the classroom. Among them is A Place At The Table, which provides approximately 272 backpacks of food each week to Columbus Public Schools students who don’t have stable access to food over the weekends.

A Place at the Table was founded on the simple notion that no child should go hungry.

More than 50 percent of Columbus Public Schools' students qualified for free or reduced-price meals last year, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. Although these students are able to grab a meal in the lunchroom, many struggle to get food during the weekend. It’s these hungry kids that A Place at the Table aims to help out.

The faith-based nonprofit organization's Food for Thought program prepares weekend meal kits. These food bags contain easy-to-make meals like instant pasta, soup or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Each week, Columbus Public Schools anonymously distributes more than 200 of these meal bags to its students.

“The goal of the program is pretty simple, we’re trying to make sure that students who may be experiencing food insecurity at home on the weekend have something to eat,” organization founder Jason Rosenkranz said. “That's the gap we’re trying to fill, so when they go home on Friday, they go home with some food and have a chance to eat well before they return to school on the following Monday.”

A Place at the Table was founded in 2009 by Rosenkranz to help improve the lives of students in Polk County. When he moved to Platte County from his hometown of Stromsburg for work purposes, he brought the program over with him. Since 2013, it has been helping to provide weekend food for students in Columbus area public schools.

Each meal bag costs about $7 and is prepared by volunteers every Tuesday at the First United Methodist Church’s Outreach Center, 3602 16th St. Program volunteer Denene Owens said it's not too uncommon for students to struggle to remain well-fed during the weekend.

“There are all sorts of various reasons why people need help with their food needs,” Owens said. “We’re not here to judge, we just know it’s not the kids' faults, whatever it is. So we’re trying to help those kids.”

Rosenkranz said students who are well-fed perform better in school.

“Students that are well-fed tend to be better learners. If you’re hungry all the time at school, then you're distracted,” he said. “We’re just a small part of the puzzle in creating that learning environment that allows students to succeed in school and become productive members of society when they grow up.”

Owens said the organization is entirely funded from a variety of local non-governmental organizations like the Columbus Area United Way through its Community Impact Grant. Rosenkranz said people in the community have been supportive of the program and its mission.

“We’re so grateful for the support of the United Way and all of our other donors,” Rosenkranz said. “It takes a lot of resources, and the Columbus community has definitely embraced the program and made it possible to keep it going.”

Those wishing to donate to the program can make out a check to A Place at the Table Inc., and send it to PO Box 1590, Columbus, NE, 68602. Those wanting to make a donation to the Columbus Area United Way can visit ColumbusUnitedWay.com or call its office at 402-564-5661.

Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at eric.schucht@lee.net.

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