Spokane Journal of Business

Umpqua Bank, partners bank on food as an academic energizer

Pilot program in second year at three schools here

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-—Treva Lind
Umpqua Bank employee Hattie Wolf helps Dolphe Thomas and her grandson, Carlson, at a mobile food bank set up at Lidgerwood Elementary School on June 3.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a handful of Spokane-based Umpqua Bank employees left the financial world to spend a few hours on a kids’ playground. Trading desks and teller stations to stand behind lunch tables, they staffed a mobile food bank to serve families picking up kids from Lidgerwood Elementary School, on Spokane’s North Side.

The effort is part of a three-year pilot program connecting Umpqua Bank, Umpqua Bank Charitable Foundation, and Second Harvest Food Bank as partners in a multilayered focus to combat hunger among students at three Spokane-area schools. Now, in the second year, the effort also will measure indicators by the end of the 2016-17 academic year to gauge if big reductions in “food insecurity” impact disadvantaged kids’ educational achievements. 

Food insecurity is a term developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to describe households financially stretched to the point of having limited or uncertain access to adequate food, and potentially prolonged hunger. Hunger threatens academic success of children on many levels, reports Second Harvest. Hungry children are sick and absent more, struggle to concentrate, and run two times the risk of failing a grade. 

In fall 2014, Umpqua Bank Charitable Foundation gave a $300,000 grant to launch the Second Harvest at Spokane Schools program for multiple school-based nutrition services, enabling the pilot at three sites: Lidgerwood, Bemiss, and Trent elementary schools. These schools report that 84 percent to 87 percent of their students rely on subsidized meals. 

“By next year, we’ll have more measurements of school performance,” says Lidgerwood’s principal, Steve Barnes, adding that the partnership between Umpqua, the food bank, and the schools has been impressive. 

“I know how important food is for kids, for their nutrition and brain development,” Barnes says. “You see lots of people who go through the mobile food bank and say, ‘Thank you.’ They live on a fixed budget. Some are single parents.”

Barnes adds, “The meals mean healthier kids; they come to school more regularly.”

The $300,000 funding was the largest among two inaugural grants given by the relatively new Umpqua foundation, initially funded with $10 million in April 2014. The foundation’s initiatives are defined as striving to expand access to education and create economic opportunity for children and families. 

Meanwhile, more than 100 Spokane-based Umpqua employees have targeted their time since fall 2014 toward the food bank partnership, through the bank’s employee volunteer program. Umpqua employees, called bank associates, receive up to 40 hours a year of paid volunteer time in the community.

Umpqua Bank, headquartered in Roseburg., Ore., has branches across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California and northern Nevada. The foundation’s other inaugural grant, $120,000, went to a Spokane County program called Excelerate Success, joining community groups to leverage resources toward increasing kindergarten readiness.  

“We believe education is the critical path for economic success over the long haul,” says Nicole Stein, a Portland-based Umpqua vice president of corporate responsibility. “We want to help create stability for families and for the community as a whole.”

She adds, “By putting this ($300,000) grant in place, we really asked that question of Second Harvest: ‘What happens when you try to create food security, in this case at three elementary schools, and does that have a positive effect on educational attainment for those kids?’” 

Second Harvest’s research indicates one of every four children in Spokane County is food insecure. Of those, 33 percent likely aren’t income eligible for federal nutrition assistance, the nonprofit says. Additionally, 46 percent of the students attending Spokane County schools—numbering about 28,630—qualify for free and reduced-price meals, which puts them at heightened risk of hunger at home, according to its research sources.

The number of subsidized school meals increased to nearly 60 percent in the 54 district schools operated by Spokane Public Schools, based on April 12 figures, says SPS spokesman Kevin Morrison. He says the number of subsidized meals is even higher at the elementary level, at 63 percent, as of April. 

Second Harvest at Spokane Schools, under the pilot, has a layered approach, says Jason Clark, Second Harvest CEO. It includes nutrition education, Bite2Go for weekend food, mobile food bank visits, use of a kitchen van to bring recipe samples, and information on neighborhood food pantries at nearby community centers or churches. 

Clark says early meetings with Umpqua leaders to discuss targets for the school program has helped the nonprofit apply a bigger-picture scope to all its programs. 

“Working with Umpqua foundation, they also challenged us to think about how do we get smarter implementing our mission to help hungry kids,” he says. “They asked, in making sure kids are food secure, and by extension helping families, how does all of that add up to academic success?” 

Clark adds, “It’s also helping Second Harvest get better at researching and developing the impact of our programs.”

Along with surveys in the schools, the nonprofit has turned to the Spokane Regional Health District for help in establishing a baseline, tracking data such as attendance records, and developing research tools to understand educational impacts. 

Some basic measurements include whether reliable food sources affect students’ attendance, behavior issues, and grades, Stein says. Information on those benchmarks is expected to be available by August 2017. 

“It will be interesting to see what those show; what we can do to create a better learning environment for kids,” Stein adds.

The Second Harvest partnership and Umpqua employees’ hands-on involvement are moving in tandem toward seeing real impacts and sustainable changes to improve community needs, says Marty Dickinson, Umpqua’s executive vice president of cultural enhancement in Spokane. 

“Our associates feel they’re really making a difference and seeing the faces of the people they’re helping,” Dickinson says. “We never want to just write a check. It falls flat. It doesn’t evoke what we’re about, and we want to connect all the pieces. If we’re going to call ourselves truly a community bank, then we have to walk the talk.”

Dickinson adds, “It’s through the investment of things like this that Umpqua is trying to make an impact in areas where there is a true need. There are lots of things we can give money to, but we are seeking and sought out something like Second Harvest where we can see the need, it’s measurable, and we know there will be a direct impact to the recipient.”

Lidgerwood’s June 3 food distribution was the last of this school year and followed mobile food bank visits to the site roughly once a month. Umpqua employees also have helped with Bite2Go, a program providing kids with single-serving, nutritious food items for Saturdays and Sundays. Some other businesses, civic groups, and churches also provide support and funding toward Bite2Go at these and other schools.

In a business context, the school-food bank partnerships provide resources and assets in the community beyond dollars, Stein says, including offering Umpqua employees time to volunteer. 

Last year, 146 Umpqua employees from the company’s Spokane operations volunteered just over 1,100 hours for Second Harvest, including at the three schools and for general Second Harvest community needs. This year, as of early June, close to 100 bank associates in Spokane volunteered 750 hours for the food bank. 

Another focus at this point in the school program is working to identify all at-risk children, according to Clark. 

Program partners are eager to learn what works overall to support kids’ school performance, even with few unexpected wrinkles, Clark says. 

“Some of these schools have high mobility (families moving), which makes it more difficult to track progress,” he says. “We’re learning as we go. I think everyone is open to how this is going to progress.”

Treva Lind
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