Backpack meals fill a need for youngest neighbors

November 20, 2023

Pre-schools prepare very  young students for life, with opportunities to play and learn, to socialize, to listen to stories, to make music, to follow directions, to make friends . . . the list goes on. The Head Start Center on White Oak Road in Dover offers pre-school education to 78 children ages 3-5 in an educational, classroom-based setting.  It’s one of 11 Head Start centers located throughout Kent and Sussex counties; Shonna Gillis is not only the director of those centers, she’s working double duty as director at White Oak – for now.

Because this program targets low-income or no-income families,  more than 50 percent of the students – 48 to be exact – enrolled here go home each week with a meal kit tucked into their backpacks from the Food Bank of Delaware. Their parents opted into this additional support.

Meal kits provide a weekend meal program: a plastic bag filled with shelf-stable, child-friendly meals for a weekend. The name comes from the program’s early days in elementary schools; the bags were discreetly tucked into students’ backpack as an effort to avoid stigmatizing the recipients. With increased need, teachers report there’s little shame associated with receiving one.

“It is a need,” said Gillis. “Parents ask for it, and they look forward to receiving the backpacks. They say it helps with the expense of food.”

Like most of our Backpack sites, the meal kits are delivered to classrooms on Thursdays, then placed in a cubby or backpack, so the weekend food can go home with a student.

The program is structured so that children will take home an extra backpack kit when there’s a planned school closing, such as the upcoming Christmas break. “There’s no extra money for food, and around holidays, families need extra food,” Gillis explained.

In addition,  Gillis and Roxann Trim, a Children & Families First compliance officer, are working to  start hosting regular mobile pantries for neighbors in need. Trim reports they’ve been well received at other Head Start sites. “We offer additional resources. What I love about the Food Bank is the variety of food options, the fruits and vegetables, and that exposes them to things that they normally wouldn’t be,” she added.

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