Weekend Backpack program provides food for kids

By Jessica Strand - Staff Reporter

Many children in local elementary schools go hungry when they're not in school, a local food bank has found.

Since 2005 the Des Moines Area Food Bank has provided a backpack program that sends easy-to-prepare foods home each weekend with students who are in great need.

Two political science classes will be selling baked goods next Monday, the proceeds of which will go to the Des Moines Area Food Bank to support the Backpack Program.

The bake sale is called Change for Change, and will take place on Dec. 5 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the second floor of the Student Union Building.

"We'll be bringing any kind of brownies, cookies, and cake pops," said Victoria Mospanko, one of the political science students involved in the bake sale.

"I'm going to tell all my friends to bring money especially after talking to the lady who does [the Backpack Program] and hearing stories," Mospanko said. "It's always good to donate or give food -- you've always known that -- but when you have an opportunity this easy to help and support it … how could you not even just go buy a cookie or two?"

The Backpack Program started small, but has spread to several schools in the food bank's service area.

"We got a call one day from a gal at an elementary school and she said 'I'm a cashier for the federal free and reduced breakfast and lunch,'" said Barb Shimizu, associate director for the Des Moines Area Food Bank. "She said 'We see kids that will come in on Monday morning and they are ravenous. Then they coming in on Tuesday morning and they're hungry, and they come in on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and they're fine.'"

The cashier thought the problem stemmed from the students not getting enough food over the weekend, and she contacted the food bank in hopes that it could help the students, Shimizu said.

The staff from the food bank had heard of a backpack program in the Midwest and decided to implement a similar program for the food bank's service area, she said.

In the second year of the program the food bank expanded to an additional school.

"The second year a nurse called from Parkside … she said 'We see problems for kids especially with issues in attendance and behavioral issues and with getting sick,'" Shimizu said.

The nurse saw that children from low-income families would often lose weight when they got sick and wouldn't be able to gain it back without adequate food in the home, Shimizu said. This would leave the children susceptible to other illnesses.

"It becomes this vicious cycle where the cold turns into an infection that turns into a more serious infection and then they have a child who is hospitalized. A family that can't afford to have that kind of problem now has the child in the hospital that they have to pay for," she said.

At least 70 percent of students in elementary schools in the food bank's service area qualify for free or reduced lunch, and some schools are over 90 percent, Shimizu said.

"We asked kids how does the Backpack Program help them and we were surprised from the things that we heard," she said.

One child said he didn't get in trouble as much for eating something from the fridge that might have been meant for dinner, Shimizu said. And a single mother with cancer told the food bank when she's not feeling up to cooking, her 3-year-old can make something for herself.

With so much need, the program has expanded to 10 schools.

"Right now we're doing about 350 backpacks a week," Shimizu said. "In the height of the recession that was 450 [a week] so things are a little bit better right now for families."

The Des Moines Area Food Bank doesn't receive enough food donations to support the backpack program, so the program relies on cash donations, which staff members use to purchase bulk food and drink.

The backpacks contain foods that are lightweight, but as nutritious as possible, Shimizu said.

Anyone interested in volunteering can do so from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The food bank is located at 22225 9th Ave S in Des Moines, WA.

To make cash donations go to myfoodbank.org and click the "donate" button at the top of the page.

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