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Urbana Rotary Club pledges money to help feed school children

A program that sends backpacks full of food home with needy schoolchildren every weekend will expand to a fifth Champaign County site this fall.

 The Urbana Rotary Club has pledged $22,500 over the next three years to support the Eastern Illinois Foodbank´s BackPack Program at Prairie Elementary School in Urbana.

 The program combats hunger by providing weekend groceries for children, distributed in backpacks on Friday afternoons to ensure students return to school on Mondays fed and ready to learn.

 Founded by the Champaign-Urbana Junior League, it served almost 250 children through four sites this school year — Garden Hills and South Side schools in Champaign, Martin Luther King School in Urbana, and the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education in Rantoul.

 The food bank supplies the food, and Junior League volunteers put together bags of groceries for schools to distribute.

 The program at Prairie School will provide 50 backpacks each week. The food bank hopes to launch a similar program in Douglas County in the fall, serving 30 students at North Elementary Ward School in Tuscola, said James Hires, executive director of the food bank. It will be supported by civic groups and individuals.

 Hires said the pledge from the Rotary Club is especially helpful, as it covers funding for three years. The food bank tries to line up ongoing financial support before expanding to a new site “so we don´t have to cut a school off,” he said. “We´re expanding at a rate we can handle.”

 The United Way of Champaign County supplied $6,150 to fund backpacks for homeless students in Rantoul last year. It will boost that amount to $7,000 in 2009-10 year to pay for some Champaign-Urbana students as well, said Beverly Baker, director of community investment for the United Way.

 Barb Daly, assistant superintendent at the Regional Office of Education, organized the program last year with Rantoul City Schools Superintendent Bill Trankina and local principals. Staff members at the regional office put together the backpacks and arranged to deliver them to individual schools each week.

 Daly said her office receives state grants to educate the 355 homeless public school children in the county, but it doesn´t cover food and other emergency needs.

 The backpacks give children access to healthy food over the weekend, and teachers say it´s resulted in better student attendance and improved school performance, she said.

 “A lot of kids who are homeless get a lot of their nutrition through school lunch programs and school breakfast programs. They don´t have access to that over the weekend,” Daly said. “This a needed program to make sure they have healthy food on the weekends.

 “For the cost of it, I wish every school had it,” Daly said. “There are those children who aren´t technically homeless, but they´re very close.”

 It costs about $150 to supply one child with food for the school year, Hires said. About 180 children participated each week in 2008-09, and the program served 248 different children.

 Hires said he has talked with schools in other districts about starting programs, including Mahomet.

 “Every school has kids who need help,” Hires said.

 The Urbana Rotary Club was to present a check for $9,000 to the food bank on Tuesday, to cover the $7,500 first-year cost for the backpacks at Prairie and $1,500 for a truckload of food through the agency´s Foodmobile KIDS program. Foodmobile KIDS delivers groceries to income-eligible families in rural and isolated areas, and Rotary´s gift will feed an estimated 150 families.

 “This generous gift shows that the Urbana Rotary Club truly understands the impact of hunger on kids and families,” Hires said.

 Rotary´s spring fundraiser netted $16,000 this year, officials said.

 Other major financial sponsors for the BackPack Program include the Junior League, Orange Krush Foundation, the Christian Social Action Forum´s Project Goodstart, Champaign Rotary, C-U Sunrise Rotary and CCMSI, a Decatur-based firm.

By Julie Wurth

The News-Gazette 


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