Packed with Love
By Kerri Regan
Photo courtesy of Shasta Lake Kiwanis
Shasta Dam Kiwanis Club’s Backpack Food Program
Even the most eager students find it hard to concentrate on school when their stomachs are empty. Schools provide breakfast and lunch for low-income kids, but it can be a painfully long stretch between Friday’s lunch and Monday’s breakfast when the family’s pantry is bare.
The Shasta Dam Kiwanis Club has eased that burden for dozens of students by sending them home with backpacks full of food on Fridays.
“Our club is all about serving the youth of our community,” says project co-chair Kathy Wheeler, a retired school administrator. “No kid should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”
The first backpack food program began in 1995 in Little Rock, Ark., when a school nurse saw a large number of children in her clinic feeling tired, sick and falling behind in class because they were hungry. With the help of a local food bank, she launched Food for Kids, which discreetly provided food for children to take home over the weekends. Today, hundreds of backpack food programs serve thousands of children across the country. It’s all anonymous, so even the backpack stuffers don’t know which children receive the donations.
Backpacks are filled with enough food for two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners, with a little extra on holiday weekends or school breaks. Items typically include fresh fruits and vegetables, canned fruits, instant oatmeal, granola bars and high-protein items like beans, cheese sticks and canned chicken. “They love mac and cheese,” says program co-chair Alex Hayes. “We include anything that is kid-friendly that they can open or microwave themselves. Sometimes we’ll include a surprise item that’s extra — during the last rainstorm, we put in a package of microwave popcorn and a package of hot chocolate.”
Most programs target schools where at least 40 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, but at Grand Oaks Elementary School, a whopping 80 percent of children receive free or reduced lunches. The Kiwanis club budgeted $1,000 to serve that school and received additional donations of food and money from club members. Costco donated the backpacks, and 20 students were identified by the school’s application process to receive them last spring.
The success of the program led the club to budget $4,000 for this school year so they could serve 30 children at Grand Oaks. They shared the idea with the Shasta Lake Lions Club, which now provides backpacks to 17 more children at Shasta Lake School. As word has spread, community members have begun donating food and money. Central Valley High School’s Key Club, a Kiwanis Club for high school students, helps stuff the backpacks.
Just in time for its 75th anniversary, Shasta Dam Kiwanis received a $5,000 grant from the Kiwanis International Foundation to serve even more students at both schools for the rest of this school year and next. Their goal is to help more students at the existing schools, and perhaps expand to yet another site.
The food program has improved attendance, grades and behavior, educators say.
“It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — learning is one of the top things, and we want to give our students every opportunity to be ready to learn,” says Grand Oaks Principal Rob Effa. “They have to have their other survival needs taken care of. It’s an opportunity to not have the anxiety of figuring out where they’re going to get meals over the weekend. They’re not so stressed out, their parents aren’t so stressed out, and it gets them into that learning focus. They come back on Monday prepared and ready to learn. It has taken some of that anxiety out of life and put the focus back on education.”
Sometimes, when a family finds that their financial situation has improved, they ask to have the generosity directed elsewhere. “We have a couple families who have said, ‘Thank you very much for this, and now we’d like you to give this to someone else who’s in more need,’” Effa says. “We’ve gotten a lot of appreciation from students and their family members. When they bring the backpacks back, sometimes they’ll slip thank-you notes in there. It’s been a great service from the Kiwanis Club. They do it without any accolades. It’s 100 percent giving.”
Meanwhile, the club is pursuing 501(c)3 status so they can receive more donations.
“Teachers say the kids who receive these backpacks get very upset if they think they’ve missed it, because they’ve come to count on them,” Hayes says. “It means a lot to them. When we get reports like that, it makes us want to redouble our efforts.”