Backpacks for Kids provides snacks, meals
A local program to help feed schoolchildren who are going hungry continues to grow. Backpacks for Kids, a Community Action program addressing the need for food for children identified as being homeless, now provides after-school sustenance for approximately 450 students in 28 schools twice a month.
The program helps not only children who are homeless, but those who are in other living situations in which they are not receiving adequate meals, including overcrowded housing, staying in hotels/shelters, staying with friends or extended family, or sleeping in vehicles.
While the program began in 2006 with 50 backpacks delivered to two schools in Bismarck, in 2009 it expanded across the river to Mandan. Out of 28 schools participating in the program, six are elementary schools in Mandan, serving approximately 150 Mandan students.
Kristi Splichal, coordinator of Backpacks for Kids, says that school staff members including teachers, principals, social workers or counselors identify students who are not getting adequate meals outside of school. The school staff then requests the number of backpacks needed at their school. Community Action staff and volunteers meet twice a month to fill backpacks and bags to be distributed.
Splichal says the program uses only certain types of “kid-friendly” foods – snacks and meals that children can eat without the help of an adult. All of the backpacks and bags are filled similarly – with pre-packaged, easy to open foods, usually including one type of food that would make a main course as well as several snacks. The program is available all year; however, the numbers are smaller during summer school. The children are sent home with a backpack at the end of the week and asked to bring it back to the school to be refilled. The bags are distributed the last two days of the school week so children will have food available over the weekend when they are not attending school.
Laura Just, Mandan Public School District social worker, works closely with the Backpacks for Kids program in Mandan. Just says that part of her job is to help educate families about community resources available to help them when needed, and show them how to use those resources effectively. Just says there are “Parent Nights” held throughout the year during which families are told about services available and information is provided help them learn how to provide structure within the home. Just says Backpacks for Kids is one part of a holistic approach to helping families in need – other resources are also available.
Just has noticed a large increase in the student population in Mandan Public Schools over the last couple of years, including many students who are in need of the Backpacks for Kids program. Just says, “The food in the Backpacks for Kids program is filling stomachs, but the backpacks are also making a huge difference in improving the self-esteem of students. When the families receive these (backpacks), the kids can bring snacks like the other students. Then they are ‘normal,’ and this is so necessary to their self-esteem.” She says the availability of snacks makes a noticeable difference in the mental and emotional well-being of the children, in addition to the physical benefits.
Donations to the program are always accepted and appreciated. Most of the food included in the backpacks is either donated or purchased with money donated to the program. The program operates primarily through donations.
The food must meet certain criteria in order to be used in the backpacks: pop-top lids on canned dinners or soups, smaller sized peanut butter jars (16-18 oz), individually wrapped serving sizes (crackers, snacks, fruit cups, etc.), and no glass jars. If items are donated that do not fit the criteria, they are given to families in need through the Community Action Food Pantry.
Items especially needed for the Backpacks for Kids include foods such as cereal, granola/cereal bars, fruit cups, applesauce cups, pudding cups, individually wrapped crackers, canned dinners, small jars of peanut butter, jelly and bread.
Donations can be dropped off at Community Action, 2105 Lee Ave, Bismarck. Checks should be written to Community Action with “Backpacks for Kids” written in the memo line.
By Laura Gardner
For the Mandan News