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High poverty levels sparks community action

Residents and school fight poverty by providing free food and after-school programs

By: Lauren Ortego, Point Park News Service

In an area facing severe food insecurity and poverty, Stacy Oden responded the only way she knew how: action, popsicles and a rotisserie hot dog stand.

“I saw there was a need for safe places for kids to go and have fun things to do, things to learn and give them a snack,” Oden said.

In the two towns with the highest poverty rates in Westmoreland County, the New Kensington/Arnold School District (NKASD) takes problems such as food insecurity and lunch shaming head-on by providing students with access to food before and during school, but can’t help all of these students all the time.

Beginning in August 2014, the NKASD began offering students free breakfast and lunch without the need to fill out the previously required form with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The district provides meals to students via the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). The program is available for school districts that meet a specific number requirement of students at an economic disadvantage.

“The minimum qualifier is that 40 percent of the enrolled students have to qualify for a free meal through direct certification,” Rachel Divens, the food service director at NKASD said in an email. “Direct certification is typically a family that received other state assistance such as food stamps or the student is a foster child, migrant, or homeless.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, schools that adopt the program are “reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).”

New Kensington and Arnold have two of the highest poverty rates in Westmoreland County, with Arnold being the worst of the two.

According to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, in 2016, 27 percent of those under 18 years old in Arnold are below the poverty level. Thirty-three percent of those under five years of age are too.

The same survey reports about 40 percent of those under 18 years old in New Kensington are below the poverty level, and of that percentage, about 45 percent are under five years old.

Oden, a Christian education coordinator for the United Presbyterian Church in New Kensington, started after-school programs at her church for local children in 2010. The programs run Monday and Wednesday and begin right after school.

After hopping off the bus, students let loose for a half hour of free play before snacks. While eating, students participate in lessons on manners and hygiene. Students also learn to make sure everyone gets their equal share. Snacks are followed by a structured activity based on a story from the bible or lesson on being a good person.

“Sometimes we watch a movie and eat popcorn, sometimes we do sports challenges like ping pong or dodgeball tournaments,” Oden said. “We have cookies with cops where the police come in and help the kids decorate cookies and a whole month of kids baking cookies in October with the New Kensington police.”

Oden often times provides leftovers for kids to take home.

Alyssa Pistininzi, a parent of a 6 and 8-year-old enrolled in the program, finds the programs to be not only an excellent way to get involved with the community but a great source of socialization with others.

Pistininzi first heard about the programs at a science fair the city was hosting, there she met Oden at a booth for the United Presbyterian Church. Being fairly new residents, the Pistininzi’s were thrilled to have an after-school program run by Oden.

“Miss Stacy and the entire team there do an unbelievable amount of good for the kids in this area,” Pistininzi said. “I give them all the credit in the world for how much of themselves they give to others.”

Pistininzi also credits Oden’s programs with helping her oldest daughter, Aubrey, with her anxiety, which eventually allowed her to leave cyber-school and enter public school with NKASD.

“It is worth noting that Aubrey really opened up while attending these programs,” Pistininzi said. “I believe this really allowed her to let go of much of the shyness and anxiety she had and move on to public school, which she is very much enjoying and thriving in.”

In the summer, Oden runs a Hot Dog Cart and Popsicle Ministry program where she and the kids push a hot dog cart around the block, hang out on porch steps and talk. Sometimes there are carnival-style games kids can win prizes from.

“I told them I wanted them to ‘own it’ spreading the word, offering hot dogs to everyone that walks past,” Oden said. “And they do. Sometimes they chase people down shouting ‘I said FREE hot dogs!’”

Between Oden’s programs and the NKASD offering free breakfast and lunch to their students, the kids of New Kensington/Arnold have a few friendly faces helping them as they continue to overcome the poverty of their area and eat as well as they can.

“It’s always a chow fest with the younger kids,” Oden said. “Sometimes they fight over fresh apples, which can be funny, but also sad.”

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