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Backpack meals feed hundreds of kids

The United Way of Becker County is sending out more food to students every weekend than it ever has.

The Backpack program started in 2008 when volunteers assembled bags of food for 50 students in Detroit Lakes’ Rossman and Roosevelt Elementary schools — students who were identified as “in need.”

The food, which includes two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and two snacks were discreetly placed in the childrens’ backpacks every Friday afternoon.

News of the program spread and the number of people coming forward for help exploded.

By the following year the number of students and parents applying for the program doubled, and since then it’s steadily climbed as the program opened up its services to students in Lake Park-Audubon and Frazee.

Last year the program and its volunteers delivered a total of 6,600 bags of food to students.

“And now we’re already at 800 bags for the month of October,” said Abby Pettit, who heads up the Backpack program in Becker County.

Pettit says she continues to be surprised by how many local children are in homes where food is not always available.

“They do say one out of every five children in Becker County go home hungry to a house where they have nothing to eat until they go back to school on Monday,” said Pettit, “so in these backpacks we put in fruit and vegetables, cereals and grains, milk products, drinks and easy-to-heat meals.”

Pettit says the qualifications for who can benefit for the program follow the same guidelines as the free and reduced meals at school.

“But there are still some students that are not on the free and reduced plan at school but who teachers have identified as kids who they believe need help,” said Pettit, who says there are also many families who receive free or reduced meal benefits at the school that opt out of the backpack program.

Pettit says what they need right now is more volunteers to help deliver the food every Friday.

The need for more bags also naturally translates into a need for more funds for the program, which Pettit says are also increasing as the community donates to the cause through things like payroll deduction.

“There’s actually a spot on the payroll deduction form where you can choose what specific program you’d like your donation to go to, and the Backpack Program is one of them,” she said, adding that local churches have also stepped up and donated generously to the program.

Fundraising for the United Way of Becker County is in full force these days, with different drives happening throughout the community.

“We just finished our business drive where we do a one-day blitz to try to get donations from local businesses and now we’re in the middle of our payroll drive,” said Bonnie Mohs, president of the United Way of Becker County.

Along with the payroll drive that goes until November 15, Mohs says different programs and businesses throughout the community are doing little things that make a big difference, such as the Boys and Girls Club throwing a baked potato feed and Central Market holding a round-up.

“So they ask if you’d like to round your grocery purchase to the next dollar, and that goes to the United Way,” says Mohs, “It’s an easy way to contribute and it also proves that when that everyone works together and does just a little bit, it makes a big difference.”