Backpack ministries keep kids fed so they can learn

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Sep 12, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] When the community kitchen moved out of Calvary Episcopal Church in Ashland, Kentucky, after 30 years, parishioners wondered what to do next. “We have no idea what we should be doing to help our neighbors in need. We’ve got to find something to replace this,” they told the Rev. Ron Pogue when he arrived as interim rector in February.

Pogue suggested Calvary join the Louisville-based Blessings in a Backpack program, which provides weekend food packages during the school year for children who receive free or reduced lunches. “I said, ‘Let’s see if we can feed 100 kids.’”

“There were a few skeptics,” he said.

The Blessings in a Backpack program involves parishioners of all ages at Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Here, Kathy Gross, left, Ken Miller and Karen Furlow help prepare food packages for delivery to a local elementary school. Photo/Joyce Roth

But seven months later, Calvary members have pledged to feed 112 children at Crabbe Elementary School – where 94 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches – at $80 per child for the entire year. They are poised to start buying, repackaging and delivering the nonperishable food as soon as the school identifies the recipients. And they hope additional pledges and grants will let them feed even more children, said Jeannie Broughton, who coordinates the program with Deacon Diane Zwick.

Through various “backpack” programs, Episcopal churches such as Calvary are providing food for needy schoolchildren who otherwise might go hungry during weekends. More than 18 million children qualify for free or reduced price meals through the National School Lunch Program, according to Feeding America, but that only feeds youngsters on school days. Through Feeding America’s BackPack Program, nearly 230,000 children receive weekend bags of food assembled at more than 150 local food banks.

At Trinity Episcopal Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where Pogue previously served as interim, parishioners fed 180 students a week in eight schools last year and are adding a ninth school this year through the Harvesters Community Food Network BackSnack program, said co-coordinator Greg Hazen.

Every two weeks, Harvesters in Kansas City deliver pallets of free food to the church. About 30 parishioners pack the food into plastic bags in the backpacks – usually adding some donated fresh fruit – and deliver them to the participating schools each week.

Trinity became aware of the program and got involved thanks to Hazen’s sister, Jeanne Fridell, a local school principal. The individual schools choose which students receive food assistance.

“We initially targeted the schools that had the higher percentage of children that were eligible for free or reduced lunch,” Hazen said.

Blessings in a Backpack, which feeds nearly 62,000 children in 437 schools in 42 states and three countries, uses a different model. Blessings provides nutritious menus, and participating partners such as Calvary meet with local grocers to see which will meet the “price points” to deliver the food for $80 per child for 38 weeks, Pogue explained. Calvary reached an agreement with a local Wal-Mart, which will provide the food at a cost of less than $2.10 per child per weekend.

“The national Blessings in a Backpack program has a nutritionist who works with them to set up menus so that we’re sending good-quality food home with the kids, not junk,” Broughton said.

Parishioners will pick up the nonperishable items, package them in Ziploc bags and deliver them to the schools for discrete distribution to students, Pogue said.

“It’s a beautifully set up program that has a minimum of administration to it and a maximum of helping the kids,” said Zwick, who has seen the need for food assistance for children first-hand at the Ashland Child Development Center, where she is board of trustees president.

“Some children just aren’t fed the way they should be at home, and they come in Monday mornings and they want four or five bowls of cereal,” she said. “It happens in public schools also.”

Getting the food to the children can be easier than convincing a family to receive aid.

“Last year, I got a call from the principal of one school, and the child was caught stealing food in the cafeteria on Monday morning. And that was because the child hadn’t eaten all weekend,” recounted Diane Wilson, parish administrator at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Summerville, South Carolina. Through its Backpack Buddies program, the church fed about 20 children in two schools last year and anticipates feeding about 45 in five schools this year.

“I put out an e-mail to everybody I could find. Everybody brought me food,” she said. But they hit a roadblock. “That’s where the pride came in. The parents wouldn’t take the food. They didn’t want the school intervention.”

She sees hungry children as part of a larger problem. “My thought is, if the child isn’t getting food, that means that the whole family isn’t getting food,” she said. The church’s next step, she said, is to work with schools to create a pantry “and supply food for the whole family, not just the children in their backpacks.” They’ve also discussed opening a thrift store.

St. George’s funds the program – which costs about $240 per child for 10 months – through parishioners’ donations. “It’s all on faith that we’re doing this every month,” she said. “We’re just thankful that we can get them the food.”

Besides helping hungry children, the backpack programs provide a way for church members to get involved in outreach and build community.

Virginia Valentin chairs the Blessings in a Backpack program at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. The program is in its second year at the church. Photo/Joyce Roth

“We got involved in this ministry last year, and it involves a large number of our folks every week helping to fill 60 backpacks for kids,” said the Rev. Brian Cole, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, a Blessings in a Backpack participant in Lexington, Kentucky. “It’s a very hands-on, active outreach program around food and getting food to kids who are in need. … It ends up gathering all of our generations here.”

To Broughton, the gospel imperative for such ministries is obvious. “We’ve been given very clear instructions that we need to go out … and do as Jesus would have done and take care of others,” she said. “Our faith isn’t very substantial if we keep it inside of four walls.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Comments (11)

  1. Fr. Michael Neal says:

    That is a great program, we do it at our school here in KY also,and it is a great sucess………..GOD bless The Blessings in a Backpack………………..

  2. Maryfran Crist says:

    This program is spreading, but I encourage to think about what happens int he summer to kids who then do not even have school lunches.

    1. Dottie Harrelson says:

      Maryfran: That’s a very good point. FYI there is a federally-mandated (and financed) program to provide lunches (and in some locations breakfasts or a late afternoon snack) to all children through age 18 in the summertime. Much depends upon local organizations (including, but not limited to, schools) and how much they are able to contribute in the way of personnel (administration, food preparation, serving, cleaning up, etc.) and venues (many church kitchens and parish halls are well-suited for this ministry). Schools often tie the meal program to their summer school schedule, but as funds for summer school have dried up in many communities, sometimes they only serve meals for 3 or 4 weeks of the summer, thus it’s important to find other sites. Some communities even have a mobile program, where a truck goes around to various parks and playgrounds and delivers the food to the children there (by pre-arrangement and registration of course). The meals can be as simple as sandwiches and fresh fruit, or as complex as complete hot meals. If your community doesn’t yet participate in this program, you might want to explore the possibility for next summer.

  3. Janet Hale says:

    This sounds like an awesome idea and program!

  4. Blessings in a Backpack is a wonderful program. Last April, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois began partnerning with Oakton Elementary School in Evanston – a school that already had a Blessings in a Backpack program. We now provide weekly support in preparing the backpacks for students and will soon begin assisting with shopping as well. So wonderful to see this making ENS news! And so wonderful to hear of the many congregations taking part around the Church.

  5. There seems to be a significant movement in the Episcopal Church through Blessings in a Backpack beginning with Kentucky, Illinois and Texas! In Houston, Texas, the Holy Spirit Episcopal Community (church and school) is feeding 60 kids in attendance of Blackshear Elementary. Blackshear Elementary is located in Houston’s Third Ward, which also happens to be a food desert, where groceries are difficult to obtain due to lack of supermarkets, lack of transportation and lack of resources. Our program grows everyday with plans in place to reach 200 by school year’s end. Our local implementation is named “Shear Blessings” with John 21:15 being our cornerstone…”Feed My Lambs”. Thanks for sharing this wonderful news at Calvary.

  6. The Rev. Dr. Fran Toy says:

    Wouldn’t it be a better use of funds by political candidates vying for office if they would support programs such as Blessings in a backpack instead of using multiple millions of dollars for negative ads ?

  7. Rich Chappell says:

    Count Epiphany Episcopal in Newport New Hampshire as one who feeds twenty kids a week with our own packpack program. Feeding America and The NH Foodbank will help this year but didn’t have the funds when we started 2 years ago.

  8. Allison Duvall says:

    Blessings on all churches involved in this ministry. Very proud to see two churches from the Diocese of Lexington in this article.

    How can The Episcopal Church use its advocacy networks to lobby for policy to provide funding to such programs? Over 90% of the children served by the Reading Camp ministry in Kentucky qualify for free or reduced lunches. There are sites throughout the country that offer the NSLP (National School Lunch Program) meals to children throughout the summer, but I wonder if they reach every hungry child that benefits during the year? Every year, at least five of our campers comment that they only eat once per day at home.

    How do we ensure hungry children are fed on weekends and throughout the summer?

    Allison Duvall
    Executive Director
    Reading Camp, Episcopal Diocese of Lexington

  9. The Rev'd. Steven L. McCarty says:

    We do the backpack program at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Clear Spring, Maryland. Every Friday during the school year, we supply 15 selected elementary school children with food for the weekend. The school counselor selects the children to receive the backpacks. We work under the guidelines of the Micah Backpack program; but at St. Andrew’s we call the backpacks, “Compassion Packs”. But, we do more than just supply food. The backpacks are packed by the local high school students who are in the Life Skills program, those students with various developmental handicaps come by the Church on Thursdays and pack the backpacks.. We also help students who need Student Service Learning hours for graduation obtain their hours by helping organize & clean the room where we store the food at the Church.

  10. Moputo Jones says:

    God bless Fr. Ron Pogue! How does he have time to do all that he does?

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