BackPack ProgramTM aims to feed children from low-income families
For elementary-aged children who may not receive the proper amount of nutrition over the weekend, a program exists to help keep their stomachs full on the days they are not in school.
The Ballard School District has been participating in the BackPack ProgramTM since the middle of the last school year. For both last year and this year, the program was funded by income earned through the United Way of Story County (UWSC) Endowment. Funding in the future will come from the UWSC’s LIVE UNITED annual campaign. UWSC then pays the Food Bank of Iowa directly, said Sara Wilson, UWSC marketing director. No cost is incurred by the schools or families who participate in the program.
Through the program, a total of 25 children from Ballard’s two elementary schools receive a small bag filled with nonperishable food items to take home on Fridays. This food supplements what their parents or guardians provide them, said Michael Macki, Ballard East Elementary guidance counselor and life skills instructor.
"It’s a cool collaborative between the (Ballard school) district, the Food Bank of Iowa and the United Way of Story County," Macki said.
The program is run by Macki, Paula Ciccotti, Ballard West Elementary guidance counselor, and Jeriann McLaughlin, Ballard High School mentoring/volunteer coordinator, along with help from several high school student volunteers.
When the program began last year and at the beginning of this school year, consent forms were sent out to families who had been identified as ones who could possibly benefit from the program. By signing and returning the forms, parents are giving the school permission to send home a food backpack with their students each week.
The backpacks are small drawstring bags that are meant to be discrete so as not to bring attention to the students. Inside the backpacks are enough food to feed the child over the course of the weekend. Food items packed each week include two breakfast items, a main dish, two 100 percent fruit juice boxes, two fruit cups, a snack, a pudding cup, two milk cartons that do not have to be refrigerated and a high-protein peanut butter cup. McLaughlin said the food items are great for the students because many are ready to eat or need to be heated in the microwave - none require the use of an oven or stove.
The food is picked up from the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines every eight weeks, Macki said. It is then stored in a closet in McLaughlin’s room at the high school. The high school student volunteers are responsible for packing the food each week.
Ballard High School senior Alexa Markley manages the team of high school students who help with the program and also serves as the liason between the two elementary schools. Markley became involved in the program after McLaughlin approached her, asking if she wanted to help. Each Friday, Markley packs the bags of food and delivers them to the elementary schools, where she distributes the bags to the elementary students. She created a roster that lists each child’s name and the bag they receive each week. The bags are numbered so she can keep track of which students return their bags on Mondays, and which bags still need to be brought back.
"She does a wonderful job, and I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of her," Macki said.
Markley has witnessed how the program impacts all the elementary children, even those who are not receiving food through the program. She said the younger kids will see the high school students helping out, and they, too, will want to help those in need. Markley said she wants to continue helping with the program next school year after she graduates.
"It means the world to me that we can help people get out of poverty and get out of hunger," Markley said.
Ashley Metzger, also a senior at Ballard High School, is another student who has been helping with the program. She spends one of her free periods during the school day packing some of the backpacks.
"Knowing that I’m actually giving back to the community" Metzger said is what she enjoys about her involvement in the program.
McLaughlin said the high school students’ involvement is a great way to teach them the importance of helping others while expecting nothing in return. It also makes them realize that while the Ballard community is growing, there are still people who live in the community who are in need of assistance. She said the percentage of students enrolled in the district’s free and reduced-price meal program has increased over the past couple of years.
"I think it’s important for the kids who are helping with the program to know that there are people who are hungry and need help," McLaughlin said.
Macki said he and McLaughlin have realized the program has opened the doors for possibilities of providing low-income students with other necessary items to promote academic growth and achievement.
"We both recognize the potential for it to become something to bring assistance across a broad spectrum," Macki said.
Toward the end of last school year, Ballard partnerned with Read Iowa to provide books in the backpacks sent home with the students. Macki said families who may not have the means to put adequate amounts of food on the table also may not have the means to purchase books for their children to use as they are learning to read. The district aims to include books that are appropriate for each student’s reading level. Macki expects the district will again start including books in the backpacks at the end of this year.
Looking ahead, Macki hopes the program can be extended to sixth grade students - the cut-off age for students who can receive food through the program. Paperwork has already been submitted to include the sixth grade, and, if approved, backpacks of food could be going home with Ballard sixth graders as early as after spring break, Macki said.
McLaughlin said they also want to extend the program into the summer months so those same students can have food sources while school is not in session. The district is working with the Ballard ministerial association to work out a way to accomplish this. Macki said someone from the school district would need to be in charge of the food distribution in the summer, which is a requirement of the program.
As long as funding is available, Macki said he hopes the district continues participating in the program.
"We want students to get the most from a school setting to help them later on in life and provide them with the tools needed to experience a high degree of success," Macki said.
BackPack ProgramTM sack contents: 2 breakfast items 1 main dish 2 100 percent fruit juice boxes 2 fruits 1 snack 1 pudding cup 2 milks 1 high-protein peanut butter cup
Direct cost of food per sack - $3.70. Future funding of the program will come from the United Way of Story County LIVE UNITED campaign. Community members can support the BackPack ProgramTM by donating to the campaign.
Other Story County schools who participate in the BackPack Program include:
Kate Mitchell Elementary Meeker Elementary
Sawyer Elementary - beginning in January