Sep 16, 2020 2:26 PM

Poverty In Our Area: The Backpack Program

Posted Sep 16, 2020 2:26 PM

By Patricia Jones, Task Force on Poverty

The schools do a great job of feeding children lunch and breakfast every school day. With more than half of Alliance Public School students qualifying for free and reduced lunches, there is a definite need to provide the nutrition necessary for children to succeed in school. But what do these hungry kids eat on weekends? Here is where the Backpack Program steps in.

Cheryl Harris began the Alliance Bulldog Backpack Program in the Fall of 2010 after she retired from the school system. She saw children coming to school hungry, especially after a weekend. A friend in Scottsbluff was running a backpack program, so she went over to see how they did it; the rest is history.

The students in need are identified by the counselors, teachers and principals.

APS students from Early Childhood Development through the Alternative School are eligible. The number of backpacks vary as students move in and out of the system. There have been as many as 200 students per week and as few as 98, with an average of 130-150. So far this year the program has over 100 names and they’re not all in.

St. John’s Lutheran Church provides backpacks for Head Start students. Hemingford Public Schools fills a few backpacks each week for their students to take home on weekends.

The APS program began by packing backpacks but soon found that it was difficult to get them returned, and they had to be rounded up and taken to the laundromat every so often. After the first few years, the counselors suggested grocery bags. They are clean and don’t have to be returned. It’s also easier for most students to slip the plastic bags into their personal backpacks.

The food is packed every Monday night by volunteers. Other volunteers pick up the filled totes and deliver them to the schools on Tuesday. The counselors distribute them on Friday or the last school day of the week.

The food that goes into the bags is shelf stable (won’t spoil). Each week the team selects 12-14 items: a canned meal (Chef Boyardee), tuna, soup, macaroni and cheese, noodle cups, ramen noodles, pudding cups, applesauce, fruit cups, peanut butter or cheese crackers, saltines, two individual boxes of cereal, juice box, granola bars. Once a month each student receives a jar of peanut butter and one of jelly and a voucher for a gallon of fresh milk or powdered milk, redeemed at Grocery Kart.

The supplies are funded by grants. Through the years there have been funds from Snow Redfern, The Mission Store, United Way, the Lions, Farm Credit, Burlington Northern and Arby’s. Individual donations of both money and supplies have been received. There have been classes doing food drives, 4-H clubs donating food, children asking for guests coming to a birthday party to bring food instead of gifts, individuals doing fundraisers. BBGH staff collected coins and the hospital matched the amount raised.

Backpack Program volunteers are amazing people who have a heart for serving and loving children. With 51 volunteers, there are enough for four teams, with each team only packing once a month. Besides the ones who pack the bags, others help set things up and break down boxes, take cardboard and pasteboard to the recycling center, pick up filled totes and deliver them to the schools, pick up empty totes and return them to the packing location. Another person orders groceries, picks them up and stocks the shelves. Each time they have to find a person to fill a job there is another person who generously gives of their time.

When asked if there were any resources the program needs, Harris said that they use Grocery Kart bags. If people would save them and double them, they don’t have to be purchased, and she would be happy to pick them up. Cash donations are always welcome and if someone would like to volunteer, they can call Cheryl Harris at 762-4346.

Harris says, “It would be wonderful if there wasn’t a need for this program, but as long as there’s a need, I’m glad we are able to help.”