Thursday, February 20, 2014

Packing the Future: The Backpack Program

Two weeks ago today, myself and about 20 other volunteers gathered together in the kitchen of Boynton Middle School to pack food packs for the Food Bank of the Southern Tier's Backpack Program. The Backpack program began when school officials realized that children who received free, or discounted lunches at school, often relied on these school provided meals as their only source of food for the whole day. This means that while out of school, they were not guaranteed a meal. The main mission of the Backpack program is to ensure that local community members and families who are at risk for hunger, have enough food to sustain themselves for over the weekend, or on extended breaks. Since its creation, the Backpack program covers six counties, Broome, Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga, and Tompkins, covering nearly 4,000 miles. In 2012, 7,852,972 pounds of food were distributed to the aforementioned counties.

I have always loved the mission behind the Backpack program and all the work that they do, so when they asked for volunteers to help pack food packs, I was absolutely excited to be able to help. The process itself was very easy and efficient. First volunteers helped to double bag all of the food packs. Then, all the volunteers lined up in an assembly line fashion, and helped place one food item at a time into the pack, and then pass it down to the next person with the next food item. Each food pack is assembled with food items that are portable, safe (non-glass), and can be combined to fulfill daily fruit, protein, dairy and carbohydrate requirements. For this packing session we used peanut butter, and canned chicken as our protein component, mac and cheese for our carbohydrate and dairy, and oatmeal for carbohydrate, and raisins and banana chips for our fruit component.

Our packing assembly line

I was amazed at how fast the time went! We were there for a total of an hour and half, but it seemed to go by in the blink of an eye! And what was even more impressive, was how quickly the food packs piled up. We placed finished food packs into banana boxes for storage and by the end of our session, the whole entry way was filled with boxes! It was incredible to see how much of an impact we were going to be able to make from just the little effort we expounded.

Our finished food packs! 
But, what really brought it home for me was the story Food Bank coordinator, Darlene Bachman told us at the end of our volunteer session. She spoke of a grandmother who once reached out to her to express her gratitude for the Backpack Program. She works all day, and then goes to her son's house to help prepare dinner for her seven grandchildren. Her son is a single-father who works long hours to just make ends meet for the family, so she helps out in any ways she can, like starting dinner for the children as they wait for their father to come home from work. When she arrived one day, she realized that there wasn't any food to make dinner with. Much to her relief, there were three food packs on the table from three of the children that were signed up for the Backpack Program. With the food packs she was able to fix dinner for all seven children, and her son and had enough leftover for breakfast for the next day. The grandmother told Darlene, she wouldn't have be able to make dinner for her grandchildren without the Backpack Program.

One of the criticisms that Darlene receives about the Backpack program is that it is only a temporary solution, or a "bandaid" to much larger problem. And while she does not deny the complexity that makes up the issue of hunger, she does see the program as an investment. If we are able to keep our children feed and healthy, both in and out of school, they can become more healthy, and focused. It's then these engaged kids who are going to learn better in school, and a result be able to give back more to our communities, and society as a whole. When we invest in our children, we invest in the future. Having access to healthy and nutritious food should not be a privilege only held by the lucky few, but a right for all.

I feel very lucky that I got to make an investment that night, if only for an hour and a half. In that short period of time, Darlene estimated that we will be able to feed over 500 families with the food packs we made. I can't think of a more worthy cause to invest my time in.

Our volunteer team!
Want to help out the Backpack Program?

 Check out the Food Bank website for volunteer opportunities like the one we participated in, or locations where you can donate non-perishable food items like peanut butter and tuna cans. (The Food Bank appreciates all donations, but in particular protein donations). The website can be found here:

Also keep an eye out for events on campus that go to support the Backpack Program, like donations at retail locations. Bonus and ID Express accepted.


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