Backpack program helps feed students during summer

Stevens Primary School students lined the halls Friday waiting for their weekly food backpacks through the Hybrid Backpack Program.

Throughout the school year, the students received one such backpack every Friday afternoon to help them through the weekends.

This week, the students got to take two bags home for the upcoming summer as it is their last week of school. Principal Jim Ellis, along with Greg Hayes, Executive Director of the Williamsport Area School District Education Foundation, Laura DeNune, Backpack Coordinator of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and Carla Fisher, Marketing Coordinator of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank helped the students obtain the bags then get on the school buses waiting outside.

In the Williamsport Area School District, about 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced meals. Stevens Primary School is above both the national and local percentage with 90 percent of its students eligible for these reduced or free meals. There is an option to opt out of this food bag program, however it is open to any and all who choose to take these bags home. The program had many goals in mind including helping to decrease food insecurity in schools as well as improving academic performances.

“We wanted to improve academics, that’s one of the goals. If kids have their needs met, including food to eat, that will have better results toward academics,” said Ellis. He said there has been a noticeable confidence-boost among the students.

Asta Jackson, a third-grade student at Stevens, has been receiving the food backpacks for a year now. She understands what the backpacks mean to someone who receives them.

“They mean a lot to me. They help the community out with food because people don’t have that much money. I think that when they are at the school the bags help them eat more and be healthy,” she said. “I see my friends be more happy when they get the bags.”

“It’s something that we can consistently know that our kids are going to have a good meal throughout the weekend. It definitely makes us feel better knowing that. It’s a good program,” said Ellis. The food bags are filled with foods that are easy to prepare and package. Foods like cereals, soups, raviolis like Chef Boyardee, shelf-stable milks and other packaged snacks are packed up in these bags to give to the kids. Local churches, businesses and companies like the City Alliance Church, Kohl’s and River Valley Dental come together to help the food bank put together these bags for schools in the district.

The program started out only giving about 150 bags out to students among the nine schools in the district. Now, the program, as well as the grant, have increased to giving out 3,000 bags per month throughout the nine schools.

“The grant that we received really allowed us to expand the program and fund it so that we can make it available to a larger amount of students,” said Lara DeNune, backpack coordinator for the Northern Tier at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

The backpack program at Stevens is just one part of trying to end food insecurity in youth. Ellis also makes sure that students have food throughout the school day by taking the leftover food bags and making a completely accessible food pantry for the students. They can come in to the pantry and get what they need, when they need it. The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, Hayes, and Fisher are working to create a new annual “Dress Down” event with their own promotional T-shirt to sell to the partners and other locals who want to contribute to the program. They hope to have the event in mid-September and all of the proceeds from the event will go directly to the backpack program.

“I think that the program is wonderful and we need to keep it going. We are very appreciative of what our foundation has done and what the food bank has done. It’s one of those things that you always wished you could do –coming together to work with us, it’s not something we can do on our own,” said Ellis.

For more information about the backpack program, Carla Fisher from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank can be contacted at cfisher@centralpafoodbank.org.

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