2014 – 2015 Sponsors
How difficult is it for a child to learn a new word or focus on a math problem when they are trying to ignore the persistent pangs of hunger? While most low-income children have access to free lunches during the school days, many are still living with food insecurity during the weekends. For some children, the 68 hours between lunch on Friday and breakfast on Monday are full of uncertainty regarding how, when, or even if they will eat. Teachers and school nurses have found that Monday morning comes, and they are forced to compete with stomach aches, headaches, distractibility, irritability, and other symptoms of hunger in their students. Feeding America’s Backpack Program is an answer to this gap in food security by providing food that children take home in their backpacks at the end of each week. Each child participating in the Backpack Program receives two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and two snacks each Friday. The Backpack Program ensures children have steady access to sufficient food throughout the weekend, so they can return to school on Monday focused on learning rather than lunchtime.
As an organizational partner with Elliot Point and Kenwood elementary schools, United Way is responsible to secure funding for the monthly food supply; recruit, organize, and manage volunteers to sort and individually bag the food for each child for each weekend; and coordinate with the schools each week for delivery. Most volunteers serving the Backpack Program are area high school students in need of volunteer service hours for various scholarships and college applications. This is a great opportunity to educate youth on the needs in our community and engage them in meaningful work addressing those needs. Youth volunteers also have an opportunity through this program for further volunteer work in leadership roles by seeking program sponsorships and grants, and organizing fundraisers and food drives. Other volunteers are United Way supporters and caring members of the community.
The teachers and counselors of participating schools are responsible for identifying children showing signs of perpetual hunger by using the following set of criteria:
- Rushing food lines
- Extreme hunger on Monday morning
- Quickly eating all of the food served and asking for more
- Asking when the next meal/snack will be served
- Regularly asking their teacher for food
- Saving/hoarding/stealing food to take home for themselves and/or a sibling
- Lingering around for or asking for seconds
- Comments about not having enough food at home
- Asking classmates for food they don’t want
Children qualify for the Backpack Program if they receive free/reduced lunches and regularly display 2 of the signs of hunger listed above. Once hungry children are identified, parents receive paperwork notifying them of their child’s placement in the program. Parents can then submit a request for additional food for any younger children in the home who are not school-age yet, to ensure the participating children are do not feel obligated to share their weekend food with their younger siblings. School counselors will receive and store the tubs of the individually bagged food each week. Then each Friday, while the students are out of the classroom, teachers will discreetly place the food in the children’s backpacks, so as not to single out the program participants in front of their peers. The children don’t know where the food is coming from or how it gets into their backpack.
The Backpack Program provides an array of benefits to various community groups. Through volunteer work and leadership opportunities, the program is an avenue for youth and caring community members to become engaged in meaningful community service. It eases the burden on local food banks and churches so they can do even more in our community. It eases the struggle among teachers for the attention and focus of their hungry students. It eases the burden on families who are often forced to make very difficult choices between food and other necessities such as utilities, medicine, gas and supplies. And it not only puts an end to the pangs of hunger in little bellies, but it can diminish an obstacle that is likely to prevent children from being successful at school and later in life.
How Can You Help?
This is an easy and great way for volunteers to help a young child in our community, if you are interested in helping call the United Way at 850-243-0315 to learn more.