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Local elementary school joins the Backpack Program

By Rubina Ali/For CU-CitizenAccess/ Food insecurity – not knowing where your next meal will come from – is a problem that more and more people face every day. Even children.

But a program right in Champaign County is providing relief to kids from families who experience food insecurity.

The BackPack Program sends in-need children home on Friday afternoons with backpacks full of food to make sure there’s enough to eat over the weekend. According to a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 50 million people, including one in four children, struggle to get enough food to eat.

Carrie Busey Elementary School in Champaign is one of the schools participating in the program. Mary Bragg, the social worker at Carrie Busey, piles up a cart filled with bags of food and rolls it from classroom to classroom to hand out the bags.

A typical bag includes all of the following: two individual servings of cereal, two individual servings of milk, a jar of peanut butter, a juice box, a can of beef ravioli, a can of pears, a snack size pudding, a can of chicken noodle soup, two granola bars, a fruit-by-the-foot and a chewy fruit bar. Food typically given away as part of the BackPack Program

Third-graders Tyrone Fulwiley and Tapeeka Chatman say they like getting the food to take home. Tyrone says his favorite foods are the snacks. When asked if either of them like to share their snacks, the answer was a loud “No!”

Raytreonna Lewis, also from the third grade, says her favorite snack is the fruit-roll-ups and she shares the contents of the bag with her brother. 

This is the first year of the BackPack Program at Carrie Busey, but Bragg and other educators at the school found ways to help out students in need before the program started. Teachers would donate a couple of dollars and Bragg would use the money to buy food to send home with a few children.

The BackPack program has made it possible to help out 25 students, and next year 35 students will be able to participate. But more students could be helped if the program were expanded. According to Carrie Busey’s 2010 Illinois School Report Card, 62.5 percent of its 400 students come from low-income families.

The BackPack Program is run by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and was initiated in the 2005-06 school year as a collaborative project between the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana and the foodbank.

Schools participating in the BackPack Program include Garden Hills and Carrie Busey Elementary Schools in Champaign, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Prairie and Thomas Paine Elementary Schools in Urbana, Regional Office of Education No. 9 in Rantoul, North Ward Elementary in Tuscola, Unity West Elementary School in Tolono, East Park Elementary School in Danville, and Sangamon Elementary in Mahomet.

Andrea Rundell, Director of Programs and Agency Relations at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, says the program started in 2006 with 50 kids each week at Garden Hills elementary in Champaign. It now reaches more than 400 kids each year. 

Rundell says food for the program comes from different sources. Some of the food is donated product through manufacturers and distributors, locally and across the nation. The rest of it is purchased, which helps control the nutritional value of the products. Last year, a local nonprofit 4Osprey, funded the program to be able to put real fruit into the sacks. 

Different sponsors make it possible for the foodbank to provide the BackPack Program at no cost to Carrie Busey Elementary School. Those sponsors include the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana, several Rotary clubs in Champaign and Urbana, and individuals sponsors. This year, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois provided enough funding to cover 10 sites in several counties. 

As the problem of hunger persists, the program continues to grow. Next year Foodbank anticipates adding another five sites to the program, in Charleston, Ashmore, Humboldt, Monticello and Kansas, Ill. The foodbank particularly interested in getting this program out to rural areas where there are so few resources for people in need.

 “We are growing it carefully, knowing that we will have to sustain it over the years,” Rundell says. “Hunger is not going away.” 

According to Rundell, both students and their parents have expressed appreciation for the program. Many have said that it fillsw a gap in their ability to feed their kids.

As Bragg rolls her cart of food down the hallways of Carrie Busey Elementary School, kids come up to her and hug her and ask if they could have a bag, too.

“A few of the older kids get embarrassed and they’ll ask if I can give the bag to a younger sibling, but only one or two,” Bragg says. “Sometimes the kids even fight over who gets to take the bag home.”



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