'Backpack' program sends school kids home with food for weekend

Modesto BeeFebruary 21, 2013 

MODESTO, Calif. -- Have you ever noticed that when you're considering a new project, everything you read and hear seems to tie into the same theme?

That's what happened to Britta Foster toward the end of 2011.

"We were seeing a lot of friends going through difficult things in this economy, and thinking how blessed we were that our children had plenty of food," she said. "My 14-year-old would say, 'I'm hungry,' and I said, 'There's crackers. There's fruit. There's cheese.' I thought about how blessed we were.

"Then everything I was hearing seemed to be about feeding children. We were traveling and I saw an article in People magazine about a program called Blessings in a Backpack. I called them, and that's how it all started."

The nonprofit program began with two schools in 2005 and now serves nearly 62,000 students in 437 schools in 42 states and three other countries - Canada, Colombia and Haiti. Britta and her husband, Jeff Foster, began the program at Woodrow Elementary in Modesto, Calif., when the school year started in August.

It works like this: Children who qualify for the federally subsidized reduced- or free-cost lunch programs get a backpack or a bag every Friday afternoon. In it are nonperishable items, such as soup, applesauce and fruit drinks. The kids return their empty backpacks on Monday, and the process is repeated for 38 weekends during the school year.

Program organizers said that by sending home nourishing, nonperishable snack food on weekends, it helps children who otherwise may not get enough to eat. Sometimes, it might even help feed the rest of the family.

One mother from Kentucky wrote this on the Blessings Web site:

"I work one job and go to college at night in an effort to give my children a better life. But with the prices of food and other necessities required to live, we are just barely getting through. ... My children do get food on the weekends, but your program helps me give them more than what I can provide. It allows me to do other things with the money that I would normally spend on that same food, such as giving them better clothing (and yes, we are proud Goodwill shoppers)."

Blessings officials say the extra food also helps boost test scores and school attendance. While the program at Woodrow hasn't been going on long enough for that kind of assessment, it has become very popular with the students.

Because of the confidential nature of the program - only the school coordinator and teachers know which of their students are receiving the weekend food - The Bee wasn't able to talk directly with the children or their parents. Not even the Fosters know the identities of the children they help.

"I've had students say their parents are happy to have some extra food," said Julie Nelson, a kindergarten teacher.

The students "look forward to receiving the bags each week," said first-grade teacher Joanna O'Brien. "They wait anxiously for me to call their names as I'm distributing them."

Britta Foster said the best part of the program comes when she's delivering the baskets of food every week and has "a chance to interact with the kids and see that this is making a difference for them. I had one boy run up to me and say, 'I forgot my backpack!' I said, 'Don't worry, you'll still get your food, but it will be in a plastic bag.' He said, 'Oh, good!' He was so worried about not getting the food. That's the reason we do this."

One recent change the Fosters have made is distributing the food in plastic bags rather than backpacks. Because some children "come from very chaotic backgrounds," the backpacks weren't always returned on Mondays, Britta Foster said. By switching to bags for every child, it means the teachers don't have to sort through which children get backpacks and which get the bags.

MODESTO, Calif. -- When the Fosters were preparing their program, they talked with Chuck and Bill O'Brien to see if O'Brien's Market would participate. They wanted to get a local grocer involved, Britta Foster said. But it's not easy, she added, to keep to their budget of just $2.10 per child per week.

"Bill sells us everything at or below his cost and works hard to find us the best deals possible," she said. "O'Brien's is clearly committed to helping kids in our community."

It also helped, she said, that when she went in to give the O'Briens her pitch for the program, "Bill looked at me and said, 'That's where I went to school.' They've been a phenomenal partner, and we love that (the food) is coming from a local guy."

Bill O'Brien acknowledged it takes extra time for "shopping the deals" to keep within the budget. "But it's a great elementary school," he said. "It has a special place in my heart."

One Woodrow parent, he said, contacted him and "was just ecstatic about the program. That's been the most rewarding thing."

The Fosters first had to raise $80 per child, or $16,720 total, before they could begin the program. The money was sent to the national organization, and 100 percent of it is returned to the local school to pay for the food. The backpacks and national organizational costs are donated by individuals and corporate sponsors.

Every week, the school tells the Fosters how many children qualify for the program. It has varied from 175 in August to a high of 225, and currently runs about 215 children, as youngsters move in and out of the school throughout the year.

On Tuesdays, Jeff Foster picks up the food from O'Brien's. On Thursday afternoons, the Fosters - usually including their children - Aaron, 17, Jessica, 14, and Signa, 4 - pack the bags and put them in laundry baskets, one for each classroom. Often, others will pitch in for the packing, such as extended family members, Jeff's golf buddies or students from Central Catholic, Modesto Christian and Big Valley Christian schools.

"We have different people every week," Britta Foster said. "The biggest challenge has just been the weekly commitment. It ties you down every week to this schedule, but this is happening because the kids are counting on it."

One of the biggest blessings, she added, "is seeing the impact this has had on our own children. Our 4-year-old has said, 'Are we going to get the backpacks ready for the children who are hungry?' They know that there are other kids out there who aren't as blessed as they are, and they want to help them."

The Fosters would like to expand their sponsorship to other schools, especially those "where the kids are in even greater need," Britta Foster said. Orville Wright Elementary, for example, has more than 475 children who would qualify for the program, she said. The couple also would like to see others begin their own Blessings program in their neighborhood schools.

"This has been a great journey," she said. "It's been very positive."

BLESSINGS IN A BACKPACK

COST: $80 per child per school year; $2.10 per child a week

COMMITMENT: Must adopt a school for three years; must raise $80 per child upfront; must commit to picking up food, packing backpacks/bags and delivering them 38 weeks per year

WEB SITE: www.blessingsinabackpack.org

BLESSINGS SAMPLE MENUS

Soup

2 juice boxes

Crackers (peanut butter or cheese)

Ramen noodles

Apple

Raisins

Fruit snack

Tuna

2 juice boxes

Oatmeal

Ramen noodles

Applesauce

Breakfast bar

Popcorn

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