Backpacks of food help feed hungry kids

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This afternoon, students in two Rochester schools will pick up backpacks full of food before heading home for the weekend.

Stuffed with canned fruit, bread, or maybe some soup, the backpacks are designed to tackle a problem that many Minnesotans don’t think about: children who rely on school lunch programs sometimes don’t have enough to eat on the weekends.

Today on the MPR News program All Things Considered, we’ll run a story about the Rochester program, and about an effort to move beyond the backpack model.

While working on the story, I’ve been thinking constantly about two people. I haven’t been able to get them out of my head.

Dan Farm, a pastor at Autumn Ridge Church in Rochester, jump-started the program after he and another church leader went to Bamber Valley Elementary School to discuss starting a tutoring program.

“As we were waiting there, I watched a young boy come in who was just in a sweatshirt with holes in it, and he had these tattered tennis shoes on with holes in them,” Farm said. “I’m looking at them, and I can see his feet. I can literally see skin, and he’s walking through the snow.”

After Principal Becky Gerdes arrived, the three began to talk about a tutoring program. Farm couldn’t take it.

“Finally I just said, ‘You know what, I can’t even talk about this,’ ” Farm recalled. ” ‘ I just saw a little boy out there who’s in the middle of this snowstorm in a sweatshirt and tattered shoes.’ ”

Gerdes told him that many kids needed warmer clothes — and that some didn’t even eat enough over the weekend.

Shortly thereafter, Autumn Ridge and Channel One Food Bank created the backpack program.

Isaac, a fifth grader at Bamber Valley Elementary, participates in that backpack program. He’s one of the students who has shown improvement – in energy and focus – since the program began.

I talked with Isaac when at the school last week. Most of what he had to say was ordinary fifth grader stuff: He likes the fruit cups, isn’t so hot on the bagels and finds the backpacks a bit heavy.

But there was a moment that gave me pause.

“We’re lucky… because some people don’t have any food,” Isaac said. “Sometimes people in other countries or states, they have hurricanes and tornadoes, and people die or get injured, or they get hungry when the hurricane is over, and they need food.”

All from a child who teachers send home with a backpack full of food every weekend, just in case.

Julie Siple reports on hunger and related issues for Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project, which helps fund her reporting.

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