Foster Farms plans to expand a program that has provided free groceries to children at four after-school centers.
The poultry company underwrote the program, Food 4 Thought, which has delivered the goods on two Fridays a month during this school year.
The groceries help feed low-income families while rewarding students for completing at least eight hours of after-school activities per week.
"I think these kids in many ways have become heroes to their families because they have been helping them to get through," said Ira Brill, director of marketing and advertising services for Foster Farms.
The program served about 500 students at Eisenhut, Chrysler and Agnes Baptist schools in northwest Modesto and at Campus Park School in Livingston, where Foster Farms is based.
The program will add yet-to-be-named schools in Merced County next school year, expanding to 825 students, Brill said.
The organizers surveyed parents about the effects of the program: 82 percent reported improved grades, 89 percent saw better communication skills, and 91 percent think their children's lives improved.
"That's what we're trying to do -- feed the stomach, feed the mind," said Mike Mallory, chief executive officer at Second Harvest Food Bank in Manteca. His agency and Merced County Food Bank supplied the groceries.
Second Harvest has had a similar program in San Joaquin County for 14 years; it now serves about 2,700 students.
Bank of America has signed on as an underwriter for the Stanislaus-Merced program. Others are being sought.
The students get 15 to 18 pounds of groceries each time. They help unload the food bank trucks and put the items into bags.
"Not only is it helpful to take home the food, but it gives them something to look forward to because they like creating the bags," said Samantha Lemos, who manages the Eisenhut after-school center.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.