School Snack: Down in the Backpack

For Hungry Kids, Backpacks Lighten Load
By Cara Bafile, Education World

Students who are disruptive, can’t concentrate, or lack motivation may not need a firm hand; they might need a helping hand! From Nebraska to Texas to New York, administrators have found that some of the kids in their care can’t function well at school not because they don’t want to learn but because they are hungry. With the help of communities, the simple remedy is a backpack — a school standby — that is filled with food supplies to help kids get the fuel they need to flourish.

“Federal law says no child will be left behind, but we are doing just that by not confronting the issue of children coming to school on Monday morning not hungry for learning but just plain hungry,” says Jim Thompson.

As principal of Wolcott Street School in LeRoy, New York, Thompson has tackled student hunger head-on. At home during the summer of 2006, he read a Wall Street Journal article by Roger Thurow that described a program in Tyler, Texas, in which hungry students received food in backpacks at school and carried the supplies home to their families.

See this article by Roger Thurow: Hunger Has Defied Solutions, But School ‘Backpack Clubs’ Try to Help.

“Reading that article was a moment of serendipity,” Thompson recalled. “With 35 years in education, and 20 of them as principal, I always knew there were hungry kids here and there, but for some reason I hadn’t done anything in an intentional or focused way to help those kids. Here was an authentic success story of folks working together to feed hungry kids. After reading the article, I said to myself, ‘We can do that here in LeRoy!'”

Thompson launched an effort that brought together the churches of LeRoy and senior citizen groups along with the elementary counselor, assistant principal, and the district courier. That diverse group shared a moral imperative — to feed hungry youngsters.

“Senior citizens were literally ‘chomping at the bit’ to sign up to pack the backpacks each week,” Thompson shared. “The desire to contribute to the community was all of the motivation they needed. We planned an orientation for volunteers prior to the start of the program and hoped that at least 20 folks might show up. More than 40 people attended our meeting, and by the end of it the entire year had been scheduled with volunteers!”

On Wednesdays during the school year, the district courier takes empty backpacks from the elementary guidance office and brings them to a Baptist church that is across the street. Senior citizens pack the backpacks with food on Thursday morning, and the courier delivers them back to the guidance office. Students pick up their filled backpacks on Friday afternoon and return them empty on Monday. Food that is needed for future months is requested at local churches, and the items — including, occasionally, personal-care items like toothbrushes — are brought to the Baptist church each week.

Local organizations have made significant donations to the program, and the LeRoy Christian Community Project (LCCP) does financial recordkeeping and assists with obtaining grants. The program has already grown from feeding 9 families to 15, and expansion is a continuing focus.

“We received guidance from the director of food service regarding foods that are easy to prepare and nutritious, especially those that can be heated up in the microwave,” Thompson explained. “Our offerings include granola bars, fruit, yogurt snacks, and even some candy bars now and then.”

Food allergies are a special concern, so backpacks given to students who have allergies are marked and monitored carefully. The school counselor handles communication with participating students and their families and maintains total confidentiality.

“Weekly, we hear heartfelt comments like, ‘Thank you so much for this!’ and ‘God bless you folks!’ and ‘You don’t know what a difference this has made!'” added Thompson. “But equally moving are the folks who come into my office and leave a check for the program. One anonymous donor requested that I meet with him at the major grocery store in town just before Thanksgiving. He wanted to purchase $50 gift certificates for each family in the program. He wanted the families to have ‘a real Thanksgiving.'”


“We received a call from a school nurse who knew that we provided food to church food pantries and wanted to know if we could help some of the students in her school,” recalls Laura Rhea, president and CEO of the Arkansas Rice Depot. “She said students were coming to her with headaches and tummy aches and complaining of being dizzy. When she talked to them, she discovered that they weren’t sick, they just hadn’t eaten since school lunch the day before.”

A school counselor confirmed that she too was seeing students who weren’t staying on task and were disruptive because hunger was impeding their ability to concentrate. From the initial request of this school, an original program called “Food For Kids” was born. Viewed as the first of the “backpack programs” to combat hunger in the U.S., it has been replicated in 110 cities in 39 states.

Like many states, Arkansas faces a difficult fight against hunger. The Food Research and Action Center reports that more than half of children in Arkansas who take part in school lunch programs receive free or reduced rates, and poverty in the state exceeds the national average. During the 2005-2006 school year, the Arkansas Rice Depot gave food to more than 16,000 students in 410 schools. By May 2007, the number of participating schools had grown to 508.

“We send the new backpacks and whole cases of food to the schools, and they fill the backpacks according to how many children are in the family and how much food the student needs,” explained Rhea. “Food is sent home for the student and any siblings in the household. Normally, the food is not sent for adults, except in rare cases such as a mom who is critically ill or a grandmother or great grandmother who is too elderly or frail to go to a food pantry.”

Schools have a great deal of flexibility in administering the Food For Kids program. Food is available for students who miss school breakfast, need food to take with medication, or for other reasons. Backpacks can be sent home daily or on Friday for the weekend. The backpacks, which are similar to those carried by other kids, protect the students from being teased for bringing food home.

A daily backpack includes a main course, a snack, and juice or shelf-stable milk. Main courses feature entrées such as beanie-weenies, beefaroni, a tuna lunch kit, soup, chili, or similar offerings. Snacks are treats like a fruit cup, a pudding cup, a granola bar, nuts, or peanut butter and crackers. Backpacks for a weekend contain food for three dinners, two breakfasts, two lunches, and two snacks. The organization is currently reassessing the kinds of food purchased for the program in an effort to find the most nutritious, simple, shelf-stable foods and the proper serving sizes and food combinations to make nutritious and balanced meals.

“In the beginning, we were just trying to fill empty stomachs and ease the pain of hunger,” Rhea observed. “Now we are trying to be very careful to give students the proper foods for optimal nutrition. We still might give students an occasional snack cake or bag of chips, but our goal is to give them balanced meals and not contribute to obesity.”

Food For Kids seeks to provide nutritional support for children without turning them into “breadwinners.” It is designed for children whose parents won’t or can’t access traditional food relief programs. In many cases, schools let parents know that food is being sent home so that children can concentrate better on homework and school work, but in others, the parents are not notified. Sadly, some parents will withhold food as a form of punishment or eat the food so children still go hungry, and some will even sell the food for drink or drugs. In the worst cases, students are fed at school at the end of the day because it isn’t safe to send food home with them.

“We do not recommend sending notices home to all parents regarding the availability of the Food For Kids program because too many parents will sign up for any free program,” reported Rhea. “We prefer that all teachers, counselors, school nurses, and office personnel be informed about the program and asked to refer students to the school coordinator if they suspect there is a lack of food at home. The coordinator will then talk to the student and determine if there is a need.”

To meet the criteria for this backpack program, a student must have physical, educational, or emotional problems in school due to hunger at home. The physical signs students often exhibit are headaches, dizziness, stomach aches, weight loss, or low weight. Educational problems may include poor grades or falling grades, lack of concentration in class, and falling asleep in class. Typical emotional problems include being disruptive in class, low self-esteem, fighting, and stealing food.


Principal Bess Scott has seen the effect of hunger firsthand in the countenance of a beautiful, vibrant kindergartner who became quiet and sullen, and sometimes withdrawn, in the afternoon. “Even her face looked different,” Scott observed. “Her teacher finally diagnosed the problem. She was storing chewed food in her cheeks to take home at night.”

As her teacher developed a relationship with the child and her family, she learned that until the age of five the child had been homeless and had at times lived in a car. This child truly feared that there might not be food at home. Scott and her staff at McPhee Elementary often found food in the girl’s locker that had been partially eaten or salvaged from another student or the trash. While they finally convinced her that food would be available to her at home, she reverted to that behavior when she was under stress.

Issues related to hunger are not unique at Scott’s school. Because 85 percent of its students receive free and reduced lunches, it was invited to join in a backpack program sponsored by the Food Bank of Lincoln (Nebraska). McPhee is a Community Learning Center school with a very strong partnership with First Presbyterian Church, which supports the program with both labor and money. The food bank, the Lincoln Public Schools, and many partners supply the food. In the last school year, the food bank’s backpack program came to the aid of more than 500 students in various local schools.

“Hunger is a significant issue in our relatively affluent community,” explains Scott Young of the Food Bank of Lincoln. “During the 2006-2007 school year, 4,551 children, or 30.7 percent of our community’s elementary-age children, participated in the free lunch program. Many of those children and their families are in need of food support.”

During each week of school, high school students pack the food into family sacks at the food bank and deliver them to the schools. At McPhee, First Presbyterian volunteers come each Friday afternoon and place the individual sacks into backpacks. They then bring backpacks to the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten rooms, and students from grades 1-5 pick up their backpacks right before dismissal. On Monday, students bring back the empty backpacks and the cycle begins anew.

“Our food bank has a fresh fruit component too,” added Young. “The Community Health Endowment pays for two pieces of fresh fruit each week for every child in the program and provides a monthly voucher for a gallon of milk. Once a month, the food bank also provides a voucher for a dozen eggs.”

“The challenge of hunger is an everyday thing,” added Scott. “Most of our students eat both breakfast and lunch at school each day. The children eat all of the food on their trays. They do not waste food. Sometimes they will sneak a carton of milk or another item of food into their lockers to take home at the end of the day.”

The McPhee backpack program provides a “bridge of nutrition” from Friday to Monday. It ensures that children do not have to worry about having food on the weekend, and it offers the kind of food that they can manage by themselves.

“I think that how the children treat the backpacks tells us how important they are,” Scott shared. “Children do not vandalize or litter the contents of the backpacks. The students are not embarrassed to carry them. In fact, often a family or child will quietly come to me and say, ‘I think this family needs this backpack more than we do.'”


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2 Comments on “School Snack: Down in the Backpack

  1. I am gratified to see that Brenda has launched the backpack program in Randolph, Mass.

    When I retired in ’07 we were helping 20 or so families with this at Wolcott St. School in LeRoy, NY.

    Now there are close to 40 families enrolled in the program…

    Good going Randoph, Mass…

    If anyone would like more information on the program or how to start it up…

    Feel free to contact me at


    Jim Thompson
    Retired Elementary Principal

  2. We recently started a backpack program in our school in Randolph Mass. While it is only in it’s third week of operation it is already evident how important it is to the children it serves. I saw a child take a hotdog out of the trash to eat one Friday so I approached the school social worker to find out if his family utilized the food pantry, etc. It was a wake-up call to me just how hungry some children are. That weekend I hopped on the computer and researched how to help hungry children – the backpack program was the first hit I got. Needless to say, that child, along with several others went home with a backpack the following Friday. If websites like this did not publicize the great works they are doing this program may not have been started at our school. Thank you and keep up the great work.

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