Image: Joyce Starr
Orlin Wagne  /  AP file
Program administrator Joyce Starr looks through a backpack filled with different kinds of food before handing them out to students at Noyes Elementary School in St. Joseph, Mo., on April 2. About two dozen students at the school take food home over the weekend.
updated 4/15/2004 3:28:00 PM ET 2004-04-15T19:28:00

On a recent Friday, about two dozen children went to the Noyes Elementary School office in what has become a weekly ritual at a growing number of schools: picking up backpacks of food so they won’t go hungry over the weekend.

The children don’t like to talk about being hungry, said Joyce Starr, who runs the backpack program. So teachers rely on other clues.

“One of the things that we notice is sometimes in the lunchroom, kids who eat their lunch real quick. They are hungry,” Starr said.

There are some children who are sorry when the weekend comes.

“They say, ’I hate it because I’ve got to go home.’ Or they get sick here at school and don’t want to go home,” Starr said. “So we kind of know that school is a safe place and they know we care about them and of course we try to feed them, too.”

For poor students who eat most of their meals at school through government-subsidized breakfast and lunch programs, weekends and holidays can mean going hungry.

So the St. Joseph School District, with the help of the local arm of America’s Second Harvest, has started sending home backpacks filled with canned fruit, cereal bars and other single-serving foods. Similar programs serving thousands of children have started in more than a dozen other cities in the last few years.

Backpack buddies
At Noyes Elementary, where two-thirds of the students get subsidized lunches, 10-year-old Mimi Ho was lugging home two backpacks to help feed her three siblings along with five cousins temporarily staying at her home. The fifth-grader said she eats some of the food and gives some of it away — particularly the applesauce, which she doesn’t like. All the food is gone before Sunday.

It’s good to get the backpack of food, the girl said, but as is typical of children getting such help, she struggled when asked to elaborate.

“It’s sort of hard to explain?” she said and paused. “It’s sort of really, really hard to explain?”

Called Backpack Buddies, the St. Joseph program served about 40 students when it started in January 2003 and has since grown to serve 140 students. But America’s Second Harvest of Greater St. Joseph said the need is as much as 20 times greater.

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St. Joseph sits in the middle of an agricultural area and the poverty rate in the school district has increased during the past few years as several industries have left.

The Chicago-based headquarters of America’s Second Harvest is trying to raise the money to help more of its 214 affiliated food banks and food rescue groups offer the program.

Last week, the Hasbro Children’s Foundation, which is a charity of Hasbro Inc., the Pawtucket, R.I.-based toy maker, approved a $95,000 grant to help America’s Second Harvest with a national backpack pilot program.

The idea of sending home food in backpacks originated with the Arkansas Rice Depot, a Little Rock-based statewide food bank, after a school nurse at an inner city school asked for help because students were coming to her with tummy aches and dizziness.

The children weren’t sick — they were hungry, said Laura Rhea, president and chief executive officer of the food bank.

More donations bring big changes
The food bank started giving out food at the nurse’s school in spring 1995 and the program spread. The food bank now serves about 12,000 students in 339 schools, with some of the schools sending food home with youngsters during the week in addition to the weekend.

Besides feeding the youngsters, the food bank provides soap and other personal care items that the schools can slip into the children’s backpacks.

Rhea said the food deliveries have been credited with improving grades, school attendance and self-confidence.

“You give these children a little bit of love and a little bit of food and you stand back and watch how they amaze you,” she said.

But the concept didn’t expand nationally until the Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque, N.M., decided to do something similar in spring 2001. That food bank, which now provides backpacks to about 1,500 schoolchildren, helped promote the idea.

Recent survey results from Second Harvest show at least two dozen of its affiliates have started offering the backpack program or something similar. And many more said they would do the same if they had the money.

Food bank and school officials say it’s important the funding remain stable because students quickly grow to rely on the backpacks.

The St. Joseph food bank learned that lesson when one youngster moved to a new school and waited patiently for a backpack during his first Friday. He burst into tears when a school employee told him the school didn’t hand out backpacks, said Nicholas Saccaro, executive direction of America’s Second Harvest of Greater St. Joseph.

“It’s just so tough,” Saccaro said. The food bank began delivering a lone backpack to the child’s school.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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