A nutritious ‘boost’ for kids experiencing homelessness

Tariana V. Little
Tariana V. Little at an event that offered food to homeless families of students in Boston Public Schools

September 25, 2018—Tariana V. Little, DrPH ’20, knows what it’s like to be a kid without a lot of food at home. Raised in Dorchester, Mass., the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health student recalls her mother often “hustling” to keep food on the table, avidly clipping coupons and making a credit arrangement at the corner store. Now, Little is devoting her public health expertise and considerable energy to fighting food insecurity. This past summer, she returned to her old neighborhood to launch a program that provides homeless students with a weekend “boost bag” of healthy, easy-to-prepare food.

Little developed the program during a fellowship in Boston at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) and the Office of Food Access (OFA), with support from the Rose Service Learning Fellowship program. Funded by a gift from Deborah Rose, SM ’75, the Rose Fellowships support students and post-doctoral fellows at Harvard Chan School to engage in service learning projects in the U.S. or abroad. Eighteen masters and doctoral students received fellowships in the spring of 2018.

Filling the weekend food gap

Of the 56,000 students attending Boston Public Schools, approximately 3,500 are homeless. Last year, the city allotted the Department of Opportunity Youth more than $1 million in flexible funding to help schools meet the needs of homeless families. One school, the Thomas A. Edison K8 School in Brighton, worked with MONUM to use the funding to develop a weekend boost bag program—a model that gave Little a jumping off point for exploring how such an effort could be scalable across the school system.

Her challenges were significant: The food had to be nutritious, but also light enough for kids to carry home and easy to prepare by families who may have limited resources for cooking. Also, there was zero funding available from the city to launch a new program.

Fortunately, Little said, “I like constraints. I like finding opportunities, building relationships to take on challenges, and seeing how things connect. The project was a perfect match for me.” Little is also the founder of FooFii, a mobile app that helps health care providers identify and support patients with food insecurity.

She found eager partners for her new initiative at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School and the service agency Project Hope, both in Dorchester, and secured food donations from the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.

Little prototyped the program at both locations in August, inviting families of homeless students to choose what they needed from offerings such as whole wheat crackers and shelf-stable milk at one-day farmers’ market-style events. Those who couldn’t attend received home deliveries. All families had the opportunity to speak with social workers about referrals to other services, and received nutrition information and recipes. The events gave Little the opportunity to interact with families and learn more about their preferences and needs.

Following a successful launch, the Frederick School decided to pilot the program for the academic year. To make it easier for families, Little worked closely with school staff to provide boost bags that the 20 homeless students they serve can take home each weekend. The Red Cross is continuing to donate food.

Drawing on what she learned this summer, Little created a template that other schools can use to launch their own boost bag programs. And she’ll continue to work as needed with MONUM and OFA on the initiative, leveraging the resources and connections she has built up.

Little is still a little amazed that the project wound up coming together in her childhood neighborhood. “This project is really close to my heart,” she said. “It means a lot to me that I was able to go back to the community and contribute my skills.”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Courtesy of Tariana V. Little

Watch an interview with Little on Boston Neighborhood Network about the mini-documentary she co-produced, Stories of Black Motherhood.