Hunger backpacks fill a void
Published: Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 12:31 p.m.
You can do your part to help feed elementary-aged children whose parents need a little help.
All you need to do is make a donation to the Weekend Hunger Backpack program sponsored by the United Way of North Central Florida in partnership with Catholic Charities, the Alachua County School Board and Bread of the Mighty Food Bank, where food donations can be made.
The program provides eligible families with enough food to feed their children over the weekend and during school holidays. In east Gainesville, the program is available to students at Rawlings, Metcalfe and Lake Forest elementary schools. Other schools participating include Stephen Foster Elementary, also in Gainesville, and Shell Elementary in Hawthorne.
"These are families that need extra help," said Taylor Morgan, impact program coordinator at United Way. "The backpack contains enough food to feed each child in the home." She said families needing help should contact the guidance counselor at their child's elementary school.
Last school year, food was provided to 358 children.
Morgan said homeless children and other eligible children in the free or reduced lunch program get free or reduced-priced breakfast, lunch and snacks at school, so when school is out, the backpacks fill the gap. She said schools are selected and prioritized based on the highest number of children participating in the free or reduced lunch program. The backpacks are usually filled with such food items as beans, rice, pasta, cereal, snacks, pudding, vegetables, 100 percent juice, peanut butter, canned meats, such as tuna and chicken, and other foods.
The program works like this: School personnel identify families needing help. Families have the option to accept the program by signing a permission form. Then on Wednesdays at the food bank, volunteers pack enough food to feed children in the household from birth to 18 years of age.
Children pick up their backpacks on Friday and return them on Monday to be retrieved from the schools on Tuesday and taken back to the food bank.
During spring break, Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays, enough food is packed in boxes so the children in the household will not go hungry. To keep recipients anonymous, Morgan said the backpacks and boxes are labeled with a number that identifies the child.
Karla Hutchinson, assistant principal at Rawlings, said the program has been very beneficial at the school. "Parents are very appreciative," Hutchinson said. "It has truly been effective in building community relations and the bond between families and school as well."
Morgan said a survey of school administrators identified hunger as the biggest issue affecting students, and the Weekend Hunger Backpack program was established.
"They said children were coming to school hungry," Morgan said.
The program began during the 2009-2010 school year at Rawlings and Metcalfe. Although, the program expanded last year to five schools, Morgan said there is an unmet need and a waiting list of eligible children.
"Parents are grateful and they tell us when they no longer need the help," Morgan said. "We appreciate it because it opens up (a spot) for someone else who needs the help."
Morgan said the Weekend Hunger Backpack program strives to reach out and target homeless children. "We specifically work with the homeless to ensure they, at least, have an opportunity to participate in the program," Morgan said.
To help, drop off non-perishable food items from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday at Bread of the Mighty Food Bank at 325 NW 10th Ave. or call 352-336-0839.
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