By Kim Turner, Communications Director
Last year we distributed more than 129,000 bags of weekend food through our Backpack Program, a meal program for children who are at risk of going without meals on the weekends and during school holidays. We are already on pace to exceed that number. For children at 136 participating schools, the Backpack Program is a lifeline for thousands.
Maria Weeks is the school nurse at Gallaher Elementary School in Newark. She also coordinates the program for more than 50 children each week and sees firsthand the benefit of the program. “Students don’t have enough food. Period,” she says.
Families who utilize the program experience a variety of hardships. From being homeless to losing jobs and downsizing to changes in the food stamp program and insurance benefits, families who participate come from all walks of life.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with both Maria and William, a father of two Gallaher Backpack participants.
William is currently laid off from his seasonal job. Work is plentiful in the spring, summer and part of fall, but once the cold weather settles in, he is unemployed. When he is working he is barely making above minimum wage. To help make ends meet, three generations currently live in William’s Newark home.
“If it wasn’t for the Backpack Program, it would be tighter,” he explains. “I wouldn’t be able to explore with other healthy foods.”
Because of the Backpack Program, his family is eating healthy.
“There’s been times where I didn’t eat, but one meal every other day. I still don’t eat until the kids have eaten and every else has,” he says.
Maria says that kids who participate in the program are excited to receive their bags each week. “Families are very grateful for the program. It has been very helpful,” she says.
For school leaders who are on the fence about participating, Maria urges schools to sign up.
“It’s not a lot of work. Kids are cooperative because they want it,” she explains. “It’s not as hard as it sounds at first, and the monthly paperwork is minor.”
Maria points out that school meals are sometimes the only meals received by students. “How can you expect a child to learn who is hungry? Kids who are hungry can’t learn.”
She knows there are more families who can benefit, but many are too proud to ask for help.
“It took me a long time to begin accepting help,” says William. “You feel like you are not capable of supporting your family.”
When times get tough, William will utilize a local food pantry for assistance, but he says, “I don’t like taking the help unless I absolutely need it.”
To learn more about the Backpack Program, please click here.