Belleville children in need to receive backpacks full of food

News-DemocratSeptember 9, 2013 

During the week, low-income Belleville school children are guaranteed two meals a day -- breakfast and lunch. But what do these children eat on the weekend when they aren't in school?

St. Louis-based Operation Food Search aims to answer that question with its Operation Backpack program, which provides backpacks full of food to needy children every weekend. Operation Food Search and Belleville School District 118 will be partnering for the first time this school year.

"Unfortunately in almost every community in the bi-state region we have children who are struggling with hunger," said Sunny Schaefer, executive director of Operation Food Search. "Often they go home on the weekend and there's very little food. We became aware 118 had many children in that situation."

This marks the first time Operation Food Search is working with a school district in Illinois. "We are extremely thankful Operation Food Search approached us about participating in the program," District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman said. "We have plenty of children and families who can benefit from the extra support."

Individuals interested in donating to Operation Backpack Illinois can drop checks off at the Bank of Belleville, 720 W. Main St, Suite 100 in Belleville. The checks should be payable to Operation Food Search with Backpack Illinois in the memo line.

Schaefer said Operation Food Search started the Operation Backpack program six years ago and has been working with 35 different schools in the following St. Louis-area school districts: St. Louis, Normandy, Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant, Wentzville, St. Charles and Riverview Gardens.

Schaefer explained District 118 was selected over other school districts in the metro-east, because "the administration was very cooperative. We thought it would be a successful program," she said. "We also had some encouragement and support from community leaders in Belleville."

Bank of Belleville President Kevin Pesko is serving as honorary chair of Operation Backpack's expansion into the metro-east and he said he's "thrilled" the Operation Backpack program is coming to Belleville.

"We know there's a need in 118 and beyond 118 as well," he said.

District 118 does have families "who are experiencing tough times from a financial standpoint," according to Klosterman. "If we can provide support to some of our students to assist them and make sure they have some healthy food over the weekend to carry them through Friday to Monday ... it's a good thing to do," he said.

District 118's percentage of low-income students has increased over the last decade. According to the 2012 Illinois School Report Card, approximately 60 percent of District 118's 3,800 students are low-income. In 2002, 46.6 percent of the district's 3,700 students were low-income.

Klosterman is hopeful Operation Backpack will launch at District 118 schools next week. "Our principals have been in the process of identification of students," he said.

Once students are identified to receive the backpacks, permission forms are sent home for parents to sign.

Klosterman estimated Operation Backpack will help approximately 200 students at the district's nine elementary schools.

The number of students who receive backpacks, Schaefer said, depends on "the number of children who look to be at risk of hunger."

The identified students will receive a backpack full of food every Friday. The backpack contains protein items like canned ravioli, canned fruit, canned vegetables, other staples like shelf milk (milk that requires no refrigeration) and a sweet or salty snack, Schaefer said. The estimated value of the food is about $4.

Operation Backpack is overseen by certified dietitians. "They make sure the bags include a variety of fruits and veggies, only whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products," Schaefer said.

There is no cost to the participating families, and only minimal cost to the district. District 118 staff will pick up the backpacks filled with non-perishable food earlier in the week and deliver them to the schools for distribution to the identified students on Fridays. Each child in an identified family will receive a backpack. Then the backpacks are returned on Monday.

All the food for the backpacks are purchased by Operation Food Search. "We want to get all the children an identical backpack full of food," Schaefer said. The annual budget for the Operation Backpack program is $450,000.

Operation Food Search's main focus is on food distribution. The organization delivers 2.5 million pounds of food every month to a network of 250 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, Schaefer said, in 15 counties in Missouri and 15 counties in Illinois. Operation Food Search also runs a nutrition education program called Cooking Matters in addition to Operation Backpack.

In the future, Schaefer said Operation Food Search would like to expand the Operation Backpack program into more school districts in the metro-east.

The goal of Operation Backpack is to alleviate childhood hunger over the weekend, according to Schaefer. "It's hard to understand how that would be to go over the weekend and have very little food," she said.

When Operation Backpack started in 2008, it served 100 school children. The goal this year is to help between 4,000 and 4,500 children, according to Schaefer. "It's really an ideal way to eliminate childhood hunger," she said, "by providing nutritious and easy to prepare food."

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.