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'Backpack' programs feed kids in need

PERHAM -- A Perham fourth-grader shared a nagging worry with his school counselor during Thanksgiving week.

A mysterious well-wisher had been slipping a weekend's worth of meals and snacks in the boy's locker with striking regularity each Friday. But the last day of school that week was Wednesday. It looked like the boy wouldn't be getting his delivery, which he shared with a preschool-age brother at home.

The counselor reassured the boy the food would arrive Wednesday - twice as much as usual for the long weekend.

Perham is one of several area Minnesota communities that started "backpack" programs this school year to tide over youngsters who might rely on school meals during the week. On Fridays, food deliveries discreetly make their way into the backpacks of students in Detroit Lakes, Frazee and Lake Park-Audubon.

"You kind of feel like Santa Claus sneaking the food in there," said Liz Swanson, a Perham volunteer who related the Thanksgiving week story.

The United Way of Becker County piloted the Food for Thought project in Detroit Lakes before launching similar programs in LP-A and Frazee last month. The impetus, says Director Luanne Porter, came from teachers, who were spotting telltale signs on Mondays: kids gobbling down breakfasts and lunches, asking if teachers had snacks stashed away and spacing out in class.

"Teachers told us kids were coming to school literally starving," said Porter. And, "If your belly is growling, that's the driving force in your life."

Meanwhile in Perham, a group of church volunteers launched their own program and lined up more than 50 community sponsors pitching in $144 a year per child.

The BackPack Program is an initiative of Feeding America, the national network of food banks, and the North Country Food Bank in Crookston, Minn., ships the contents of the Friday deliveries. Kids get nonperishable, easy-to-prepare food: shelf-stable milk, cereal, peanut butter, spaghetti-Os, easy mac and cheese, granola bars and fruit cups.

United Way sponsors the program for as little as $3.20 a week per child, or, as Porter puts it, "for the price of a latte."

The programs generally use free- and reduced-price lunch eligibility and input from teachers and counselors to determine which children would benefit most.

"Many of our families have had significant changes in their incomes because of hours cut or jobs lost," said Jennifer Heggestuem, an LP-A counselor. A number of Detroit Lakes-area manufacturing companies laid off workers last year.

In LP-A, teachers load the packages into backpacks when their class is off to the gym or music room. In Perham, volunteers deposit food in kids' lockers.

"We don't want to embarrass the children or single them out in any way," says Susie Novak of the North Country Food Bank.

Swanson, the Perham volunteer, got caught once.

"Hey, what are you doing in my locker?" asked the boy and, when she explained, he inquired if she could swap out the fruit cups for bacon.

Other than that peeve, response to the programs has been approving. One Perham third-grader is still so delighted with the food deliveries that she shows them off to her teacher every Friday.

"Teachers are telling us students are more wide-awake; they participate more in class," says Porter. "They tell us, 'Billy pays more attention in class,' or, 'Susie doesn't seem to be as wiggly in her seat.' "

Novak said other communities have expressed interest in starting their own backpack programs, but some are still working on securing funding. Meanwhile, lakes country coordinators are brainstorming ways to keep their programs going during the summer.

How to help

# To get involved or contribute to the Perham-Dent backpack program, call Liz Swanson at (218) 347-7926.

# To get involved or contribute to the Becker County programs, call Luanne Porter at the United Way of Becker County, (218) 846-7400, or send a check earmarked for the Food for Thought program to PO Box 348, Detroit Lakes, MN 56502.

# To get information on starting a backpack program in your community, call Susie Novak at the North Country Food Bank, (218) 281-7356.

Food for thought

The idea of slipping weekend food supplies into children's backpacks goes back to the 1990s, when an Arkansas school nurse asked a local food bank for help. Students were showing up in her office on Monday with food-induced dizziness and tummy aches.

Other food banks adopted the idea over the years until Feeding America, the national food bank network, endorsed the BackPack Program in 2006. The initiative has gained much traction recently as the recession trained a spotlight on food insecurity.

Last year, "Desperate Housewives" actress Marcia Cross and the host of the hit series "The Biggest Loser" Alison Sweeney lent star power to local program launches.

In 2009, some 3,600 backpack programs served more than 190,000 children nationwide.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529