Feeding a Need

Backpack Programs Provide When Classrooms are Closed

By Dawn Onley | Posted on 11.03.17 – Lifestyles

Frederick is burgeoning with a string of hip cafés and coffee shops, emporiums hocking exotic oils and vinegars from all over the world and an upscale soul food restaurant that would make celebrity chef B. Smith proud.

But beneath the dazzle of local gourmet offerings, however, is a harsher reality: 27 percent of all students in Frederick County are living at or below the federal poverty level. That percentage equates to roughly 11,500 children on the free or reduced daily meal program who face hunger or food insecurity each weekend when school isn’t in session.

“It’s heartbreaking when you see somebody who has no control over their situation and they can’t eat,” says Juliet Savage, a substitute teacher in Ijamsville who has seen the impact of food uncertainty firsthand. “They don’t have the food.”

To address the need, several programs have been formed in Frederick County in recent years to ensure a continuity of meals, and along came people like Savage to funnel heartbreak into action.

She volunteers at Evangelical Lutheran Church in Downtown Frederick for the Backpack Ministry, formed several years ago by a small Bible study group. Each week, the ministry takes in roughly $500 in donations, plus food collected in bins at the church. Ministry members then use the money to go food shopping for at-risk students at Ballenger Creek Elementary and West Frederick Middle schools before packing oatmeal, fruit, tuna, peanut butter, black beans and rice, and similar groceries into plastic bags that can fit into a student’s backpack. On Fridays, the principal at Ballenger Creek, a church member whose husband is on the staff at Evangelical, brings the bags to school and resource workers confidentially disseminate the food to students.

The ministry started supporting eight students in 2014 when a man who was impressed with the mission donated $5,000 to the cause. Evangelical now supports 54 students. “One of the things that excites me most about it is there’s something you can do where you can see a direct impact from it,” Savage says. “From start to finish, you can see how it’s going directly to the kids. It’s impacting lives right here in Frederick. I think that’s huge.”

Blessings in a Backpack

Nationally, there are more than 16.2 million children at risk of hunger. Lack of food can cause a weaker immune system, more trips to the hospital, shorter attention spans and overall lower academic achievement, according to the Blessings in a Backpack charity.

The national organization started in 2008 to help tackle the epidemic of childhood hunger. Hermine Bernstein read about Blessings in a Backpack in a People magazine article and thought it would be beneficial to bring to Frederick. In her research she found a significant need, prompting her to start a local chapter in January 2014. Since then, the group has grown to support more than 2,000 students in 15 schools, becoming the largest single provider of weekend meals to students in Frederick County. The Frederick chapter donated 575,000 items of food in 57,000 bags last year.

Assisting the Blessings in a Backpack program are hundreds of volunteers, representing local businesses, nonprofits and stay-at-home parents. These volunteers sign up electronically each week to help pack the weekend bags across the 15 schools. Extra bags are packed when forecasts warn of potential school closings for inclement weather.

“It’s a real community effort,” Bernstein says. “Frederick is the most extraordinary, giving community. People have stepped up to donate their time, talent and treasure.”

There are no questions asked with the Blessings in a Backpack program. If parents want their children to participate in the program, they simply alert the school. They can elect to leave the program at any time. There is no paperwork and the child’s identity is kept strictly confidential, relying on school resource personnel to inform Bernstein of just the numbers of bags needed.

Sara Zuhlke-Kelley has volunteered for the past three years packing bags at Monocacy Elementary School. She says the reward is knowing that she’s making a difference in the lives of children. “I love the program. I love what they’re doing. I’ve been blessed to not have to go without food but knowing I’m one paycheck away from it … knowing these people are here, it’s a blessing.”

Zuhlke-Kelley says she also involves her two girls, ages 5 and 7, when she can. She already notices the difference it has made with them. “I want my girls to be those kids that don’t shun anyone. I don’t want my kids being the mean kids. I want my kids to have compassion.”

Troy David Barnes, principal of Monocacy Elementary School, called the program “wonderful” and says it’s making an impact in the lives of many of the 325 students from his school and their families.

“Students and families are provided with a life essential when they otherwise do not have a means to,” Barnes says. “The food provided is healthier than other options families may have otherwise resorted to. It also builds a strong community of support for our schools and most importantly for our students.”

Waverly Elementary School principal Jan Hollenbeck agrees. She also lauds community members that volunteer to help prepare the 500-plus bags for students at her school for being “so positive and generous with their time.”

“The Blessings in a Backpack program is beneficial to our community,” Hollenbeck says. “It’s really an honor to work with such a very organized and generous organization. Our kids really appreciate the bags. It’s nice to know that they can take a bag of food home that they can actually prepare, even independently, that provides nourishment. It is a very positive aspect for their life.”