Profile: Alanna Mallon
BY MARGARET LEROUX / PHOTOS ADAM DETOUR
Alanna Mallon was in the car on a long commute from her job in Beverly to her home in Cambridge when she heard a news story on the radio about children’s hunger during school breaks. The story reported a shocking number: Almost one in five families with children are not getting enough food. It was shortly after Christmas vacation in 2013, a time when many celebrations include bounteous meals.
“That story stayed with me,” Mallon says. “The juxtaposition of having just spent the holidays with family and friends and so much of it revolving around food and then hearing about kids who spent the holidays without enough to eat—it was a slap in the face.”
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city known for its powerhouse universities and high-tech companies, there are hundreds of children who face hungry weekends. More than one-fourth of the students in the city’s public schools depend on free breakfasts and lunches served in the schools’ cafeterias.
Mallon’s son Toby, 11, and daughter Jasper, 8, are students at the John M. Tobin Montessori School, one of Cambridge’s public schools. “I realized that it was likely some of their classmates might not be getting enough to eat,” Mallon says. “I just couldn’t put it out of my mind.”
Childhood memories of occasional hunger made it easy for her to relate to what these children and their families were experiencing. “My parents were very young when I was born and from the time I was 5, my mom was a single mom,” she says. “Growing up, we didn’t always have enough food; we struggled for sure.”
Though her work as a children’s clothing designer was the reason for the long commute, Mallon made time to volunteer at her children’s school. In fact, she was the consummate room parent: In addition to volunteering regularly in the classroom she founded the Friends of Tobin, a nonprofit fundraising organization, and co-founded the school’s arts council. “I’m a trusted member of the school community,” she says. So when she went to the school administration to ask about hunger programs, she did not meet resistance.
“I asked if there were students whose families could use help feeding them on weekends. The principal said, ‘Absolutely,’ and if I could find food and funding she would make sure it got to them.”
Mallon, who describes herself as “Type A, outgoing and very organized,” buckled down to work. In the evenings after the children were in bed she composed emails asking for donations and sent them to everyone in her extensive network of fellow parents, friends and acquaintances. She hit a small jackpot with an email to her children’s pediatrician.
Dr. Jill Kasper’s practice is a member of the Cambridge Health Alliance healthcare system and Mallon’s timing was fortuitous. The Health Alliance had recently established a foundation and was considering projects to fund. “When Alanna told me about the project, I knew it was something we would want to support,” Kasper says. “We thought it was a fabulous idea.” The foundation’s $800 investment became the seed money for the weekend food project.
Finding food for the program was the easy part, according to Mallon. She secured food donations from Food For Free, a nonprofit food rescue organization, and from the Boston Food Bank. Within a couple of months Mallon established the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program and attracted a loyal group of volunteers to collect food donations and fill reusable bags. Teachers and staff identified children from families in need and the bags of food were added to their backpacks on Friday afternoons.
Each bag contains enough breakfast and lunch for two days for all the children in the family. Breakfast might be oatmeal or cereal, yogurt, bagels and cream cheese or muffins and cheese sticks. Lunches include sandwiches, frozen pizza or packaged macaroni and cheese. There are also snacks, like granola or fruit bars, milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, such as carrot sticks.
“We started in mid-year with 15 students,” Mallon says. After a trial run of three months she was asked to report on the program to the Healthy Children’s Task Force chaired by the mayor of Cambridge. Over that summer, five more principals contacted Mallon to ask if she could set up similar programs in their schools.
“That put me into a panic,” Mallon admits, “but after I panicked, I started planning.” Mallon applied to Whole Foods for funding through a program that donates 5% of pretax sales for one day. Grocery shoppers from the school and community helped raise $15,000 for the program.
Mallon again reached out to her network for additional donations; several responded with gifts of $250 to support a student for the entire school year. “My daughter could probably give my pitch about the Weekend Backpack Program better than I do,” Mallon says. “She’s heard me give it countless times on the phone.”
Her passion for the food program has helped Mallon’s children develop empathy, she says. It’s also led to conversations about how their classmates have very different life experiences. “My husband and I talk with Jasper and Toby about income inequality—right now the children are at a stage when they’re very aware of things that aren’t fair,” she says. Mallon’s husband, Bob, works at Zagster, a bike share start-up in Kendall Square, as director of product.
While the weekend food program consumed her life, Mallon developed new skills. She learned how to lobby, connecting with local and state lawmakers to make a case for additional funding. “At first it was difficult; it’s definitely forced me out of my comfort zone,” she says. Although outwardly appearing calm, “inside, I have an anxiety level that’s fairly high. I’m a worrier,” she concedes.
The Type A personality also honed her ability to accept ideas and suggestions from others. “I had to learn how to work with the different cultures of school communities, how to be sensitive in making requests and figure out who is the best person to ask,” Mallon says.
“Every time I’ve reached an obstacle or a challenge, a solution has appeared,” she continues, “an email or a phone call or a suggestion. I love it when the school liaisons say, ‘You know what would really work better….’”
"Each school has its own protocol for getting the food to the identified children," Mallon explains. "Some slip it into backpacks in their cubbies, others keep the bags in the office and the children pack them up on Friday afternoons."
In three years the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program grew from the original 15 students to 385. Its volunteers distributed 15,000 bags of food. By the beginning of the 2016–17 school year, all of the city’s public schools should be participating.
Mallon is enthusiastic about a relationship that’s developed at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where high school culinary arts students store and distribute food for the backpacks, keeping track of how many sandwiches, pieces of fruit and vegetables go to each school. Volunteering in the weekend food program piqued the students’ interest in the issue of hunger. This fall, they will be able to take a new class in food justice, developed in partnership with Syracuse University.
Spinoffs from the weekend food program include monthly school food markets at three elementary schools as well as frozen dinners from Harvard University cafeteria surpluses for families at the Kennedy-Longfellow School. Over the summer, the City of Cambridge piloted a weekend backpack program at two day camps.
Nancy Wyse, parent liaison at Kennedy-Longfellow School, notes that teachers have seen firsthand how the food programs benefit their students. “Being hungry affects children’s behavior in school,” she says. “We see kids come in on Monday and they are falling apart by mid-morning.”
At Cambridge Health Alliance, Dr. Kasper agrees. “We see families who are hungry in our practice,” she says. “We usually ask during a visit whether they or anyone in their family is hungry and we receive far more positive responses than we ever expected. One of my colleagues has done an informal survey of patients in Somerville and found that 20% are experiencing hunger.”
“What keeps me going are the stories of the children we’re helping and the realization that we are making a difference,” Mallon says. “I spoke to one school adjustment counselor who’s already changed approaches to children who are having behavioral problems in school. She told me, ‘Now the first question I ask is, ‘Did you eat breakfast?’”
As the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program has grown and developed, so too has the partnership with Food For Free. Last January, Food For Free adopted the program, providing infrastructure and resources, and took on Mallon as a fulltime project director.
“That was a game changer,” Mallon says. “I still spend as much time on the program, only now it’s time that’s my job, not in addition to my job.”
Even with a full plate, so to speak, Mallon is focusing on a bigger picture.
“This is just the beginning,” she says. “Talking about children’s hunger is one thing. What about the issue of why people in this country are hungry?”