Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Summer ‘Backpack Program’ needed to help food-insecure Idaho children

Today’s National School Lunch Program has its roots in programs extending back 150 years from efforts in urban areas of New York (1853), Philadelphia (1894), Milwaukee (1904), Boston (1908), Cleveland and Cincinnati (1909), St. Louis (1911), and Chicago and Los Angeles (1921), as well as creative ways owing mostly to the ingenuity of individual teachers in rural schools beginning in the early 1900s.

The school lunch programs have seen many additions, changes, improvements and supplements, perhaps the most pioneering nationwide component being the National School Lunch Act of 1946. This defines its purposes saying, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.” In fact, most schools also provide breakfasts for children. This helps to provide up to 47 percent of weekly meals to children during school weeks.

While this program focused on school-age children, there remained many infants and preschool children in low-income households who were still regularly undernourished. The 1972 pilot program Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children made much progress in its first two years and was made permanent in 1974. These types of programs have provided much progress in addressing poor nutrition in infants and preschool children.

These programs have also been augmented to address hunger and the nutritional needs for children when school is not in session through the Summer Food Service Program for Children. Hence, we see “Free Lunch in the Park” for most weeks of the summer being available on weekdays to any child who comes to receive the meal. Through multiple reauthorizations emphasizing improved diet, health and nutrition education, wider accessibility and coverage, we have the programs we see today.

One area that these efforts fall short, though, is weekend nutrition to children of needy families. I send out my kindest thanks, applause and congratulations to efforts through The Idaho Foodbank in conjunction with the school districts to address this nutritional shortcoming during the school year by their joint “Backpack Program,” in which “each week during the school year, elementary-age children in need are given a backpack containing food for the weekend. At just less than 6 pounds, these special packs include enough nourishing, child-friendly food for two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and two snacks.” This simple backpack program covers an additional 28 percent of weekly meals for eligible children covering over 76 percent of their weekly meals. This need in Idaho is particularly poignant since Idaho’s Child Food Insecurity Rate is 21.6 percent, with more than 91,000 children living in food-insecure households.

Sadly, summer takes its toll. While the “Picnic in the Park” helps, it is only one meal of the day, and none for the weekend. These food-insecure children see their weekly secure meal rate drop by 69 percent during the summer months. While providing summertime weekday breakfasts may not be a logistical or funded option, there seems to be no reason that the backpack program must stop. These children are unnecessarily missing meals on weekends in the summer, and I warmly call upon the Idaho school districts to partner with The Idaho Foodbank and implement a similar summer backpack program serving the needs of Idaho’s food-insecure children with basic meals for eligible children over the weekend.

Ryen L. Johnson of Pocatello is a graduate of Idaho State University, and a veteran having served in the Idaho Army National Guard. He is a land surveyor with the Idaho Transportation Department.