As children leave school on Friday afternoon, with backpacks in tow, the contents of those backpacks are rarely in question. They may be filled with folders, pencils, textbooks and weekend homework assignments. But some of those backpacks are actually filled with food — enough for a child to have two meals during the weekend.
These backpacks are part of a program provided by the East Texas Food Bank. The participating children, who already qualify for reduced or free lunch programs, have been identified by teachers, nurses or counselors as having a greater need for nutritional security.
“Administrators are trained to notice the signs of hunger in a child,” said Karolyn Davis, communications director for the East Texas Food Bank. “They are usually the first in line for school breakfast on Monday morning and rush to the front. Or they have behavioral issues related to hunger or have been seen hiding food to eat later. Think about how you feel when you are hungry. It’s like you’re in a fog. You can’t concentrate. Children can’t learn when they are hungry.”
Selecting the students who participate in the program, as well as backpack distribution, is executed through the schools. Meanwhile, the food bank purchases the contents of the backpacks and volunteers refill the bags weekly.
“We distribute 5,000 backpacks per week to more than 100 backpack sites,” Ms. Davis said.
The sites include all 18 elementary schools in Tyler Independent School District, other school districts, churches and after-school program locations throughout the 26 East Texas counties the Food Bank services.
“We are very appreciative of our relationship with the East Texas Food Bank,” TISD spokeswoman Dawn Parnell said. “This program makes a big difference for the students and their family.”
“Having that extra food over the weekend gives them a better chance to come to school on Monday morning prepared to learn,” Ms. Parnell said. “We want to try to serve as many children as possible who are food insecure.”
The program began in the 2005-06 school year, with 650 children participating. It has grown each year as resources and sponsors of the program have increased.
“It’s the most expensive program we offer,” East Texas Food Bank Executive Director Dennis Cullinane said. “But we are committed to the program and reaching as many children as possible that are food insecure.
“There are very specific items in the backpacks. They have to be individual serving size and shelf stable. They’re not the type of items we receive through donations so we need to purchase them. The contents are designed to be kid-friendly and meet specific nutritional needs so the food items need to be consistent.”
The backpacks come filled with nutritious, easy-to-open food that does not require cooking or refrigeration. The typical backpack contains a variety of food, usually including protein and fruit juices, contains about $4.50 worth of food, which weighs about seven pounds of food.
The cost per child is $162 per year for a 36-week program. The empty backpacks are returned to a discreet location on Monday and then refilled for distribution on Friday.
Discretion within the program is very important.
“It’s hard for people to admit they need help,” Cullinane said. “And these families have been experiencing difficult times that put them into this situation. There’s even more embarrassment for children who don’t want other kids to know they are receiving the food.”
A Family’s Struggle
Tristan and Helo are in elementary school. Each Friday, both receive a backpack filled with nutritious food to take home over the weekend. It’s something their mom, Heather, could not do without.
“It’s a huge help,” Heather said. “It’s enough for them to have over the weekend when they aren’t getting their meals from school. It’s perfect.”
Heather said she learned about the program after seeing many kids carrying the same type of backpack each week.
“I went and asked about it,” Heather said. “They said there was nothing I had to do to qualify. If you like it and it helps, you get it … which is wonderful.”
Heather’s husband works but suffered an injury that kept him out of work for more than a year.
“We have all those lost wages, and our bills greatly exceed our income monthly,” Heather said. “So being able to get the kids these types of items they get in the backpack is a huge relief.”
Heather and her boys also like the fact that the program is “extremely discreet.”
“You don’t have to go in and stand in line and be embarrassed,” Heather said. “I don’t have to explain why I can’t buy food for my kids. The kids aren’t being teased for receiving help.”
“I like the drink boxes,” Tristan said. “I like them because they are fruity and taste good.”
Heather added that normally she doesn’t purchase juice boxes because of the expense.
“That’s a splurge,” she said.
“I like the orange juice and the breakfast bars,” said Helo.
Both Tristan and Helo are thankful to everyone who helps bring them backpacks each week.
“It gives us extra food, and I like all the choices,” Tristan said. “I would say thank you.”
“There is nothing wrong with asking for help for your children,” Heather said. “It’s not for you; it’s for your kids. I really appreciate everyone’s time and effort in making this possible for my kids to have food every weekend.”
Donations Equal Meals
The Food Bank began in 1988 and has provided food to more than 200 partner agencies in an effort to fight hunger and feed children, the working poor and seniors throughout 26 East Texas counties.
“Much of what we do is behind the scenes because we are providing the food that other agencies use in collaborative programs,” Cullinane said.
In fiscal year 2014, more than 20 million meals were distributed to hungry East Texans. Statistics show that 1 in 4 children, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 7 seniors in East Texas are food insecure.
“We have a great deal of buying power when sourcing food products,” Cullinane said.
Through individual, corporate and food donations, matching dollars and the value of volunteers who donate their time, the Food Bank states that a single dollar can provide eight meals.
They try to provide a diverse selection of wholesome nutritious food from many sources, including local and national food manufacturers, distributors, grocers, USDA surplus commodities, farmers, low-price bulk and food drives.
The donations vary from overproduced or discontinued items, frozen foods, dairy products, mislabeled goods, dented cans, day-old breads and odd-sized produce. Local farmers and gardeners provide fresh produce and individuals, businesses and community organizations support the Food Bank through canned food drives.
As a clearinghouse for donated food, the Food Bank forms partnerships within the food industry by collecting, inspecting, sorting, packaging and distributing everything that is donated.
Setting the Table
Monetary and food donations create the meals, but without the volunteers, most of the food bank outreach would not be possible.
Last year, the food bank had more than 10,000 volunteers who donated more than 60,000 hours of time.
Doing office work, food inspection and sorting, boxing food, loading trucks and bagging rice and beans are just a few of the ways volunteers help distribute the food to those in need.
“We have a lot of groups from churches, companies and organizations that come in for a few hours to help,” Ms. Davis said. “We have some retirees who have been coming for years. They get back there and bag rice and beans and have a great time talking and being together.”
Last week several employees from Tyler Pipe came to fill backpacks and help the food bank get ready for the start of the school year.
“We recently donated $10,000 to the food bank,” Tyler Pipe Human Resources Manager Fay Pettigrew said. “Instead of just writing a check, we wanted to get some of our team members more involved and see where the money goes.”
“I was hoping for 10 volunteers and ended up with more than 30 people who wanted to participate,” she said. “And this was on a Saturday, so they were not on company time.
“We all had a very good time. It’s something I encourage other companies do to help out in the community. We really believe in the work the food bank does in East Texas.”
“Giving a check is great, but giving your time is completely different,” Ms. Pettigrew said. “I really feel much stronger (after participating in the project) about what the food bank is doing and how it helps the community.”
Feeding The Mind
Most of the backpacks are distributed through schools, specifically elementary, because the older children – middle and high school – are too embarrassed to participate.
“The program doesn’t really work past elementary school age,” Cullinane said.
To meet some of the needs of older children suffering from hunger, the food bank created Kids Caf￩ during the 2012-2013 school year.
This program serves nutritious meals and snacks to at-risk children during after school hours.
Implemented through the Boys & Girls Club, YMCA and other after-school community locations these children need a place to go until their parents come home from work.
“There are many activities they can do and there are mentors available to help them with homework and provide nutritional education,” Cullinane said.
The Food Bank provides snacks and hot meals, as well as some backpacks for children to take home during the weekend or holidays.
At some locations, they also have the opportunity to work in the Kids Caf￩ Garden.
“Through a partnership with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office and the Smith County Agricultural Extension Office the garden gives kids a chance to learn about growing food and where their food comes from,” Cullinane said.
During fiscal year 2013 Kids Caf￩ provided 30,000 meals and more than 180,000 snacks to needy children.
“Many life circumstances can affect your ability to feed your family — job loss, injury, death in the family,” Cullinane said. “The needs in East Texas are greater than people realize.”
“These programs give children a chance to do well in school,” Cullinane said. “Nutrition is a major building block for education. You can’t expect a child to sit and learn when their basic needs have not been met.”
To learn more about the East Texas Food Bank or how to donate, volunteer or participate in a program go towww.easttexasfoodbank.org or call 903-597-3663.