Spencer’s Feed Our Children initiative shares best practices for school backpack programs
Over the past school year, almost 180 elementary school students in Spencer received food each weekend through the community-led Feed Our Children initiative.
Each child in the program receives a bag at school every Friday with enough food for 4 meals and 2 snacks to help nourish them over the weekend. All food comes in a plastic bag and is provided ready-to-eat. Heating is optional and single-serve packages are distributed when possible. Children are identified for the program by their school guidance counselor or nurse, who also distributes a plastic bag containing the food individually to each child to ensure confidentiality.
Food for the program is purchased in bulk and at a discount from the local Fairway grocery store. Each bag of food costs approximately $6.20, and is funded entirely by donations from individuals, service clubs, businesses and local churches.
Teams of volunteers assemble the bags of food every Wednesday evening at Hope Church, and deliver the bags to the school staff every Friday morning. Volunteers include individuals and groups from the community, and serve on a rotating schedule. It has been especially inspiring for organizers to see area students helping to assemble meals.
With five years of experience and a network of connections across Northwest Iowa, Feed Our Children has become a source of advice and inspiration for other communities that are interested in feeding their children through weekend backpack programs. Most recently, Feed Our Children organizers presented on June 26th to a group in Emmetsburg that is organizing a new weekend backpack program.
The organizers of Feed Our Children in Spencer share the following recommendations for communities seeking to establish weekend backpack programs:
- Establish a core group of at least four key people to lead the backpack program. The leadership team should include a chair (visible leader and convener), an organizer (to handle logistics), a secretary and a treasurer.
- Open a bank account to receive donations and hold funds for the program. It can be helpful to use an existing nonprofit as a fiscal agent. The Feed Our Children team in Spencer uses Hope Church as their fiscal agent.
- Make sure that there is buy-in from the school and the broader community. School support is critical for the success of any backpack program, as school staff identifies children to participate and the school is the venue at which food is distributed. Broader community support is important to the sustainability of the program, as donations and volunteers are likely to come from area churches, businesses, and civic groups.
- Start with a small program and grow slowly and deliberately. Doing research and making connections early on builds efficiency and goodwill for the future.
- The Iowa Food Bank Association has additional resources and its member food banks often partner with communities that are launching weekend backpack programs. While the Feed Our Children initiative in Spencer has decided against a partnership with the food bank at this time, new backpack programs are encouraged to reach out to their regional food bank and explore whether a partnership would be mutually beneficial.
Photo credits: Feed Our Children backpack contents, volunteers. More photos online.