February 25, 2021

Beneficial backpacks: Two local programs help children

By Kristi Kates | Nov. 21, 2016

The four divisions of Petoskey’s Manna Food Project, the nonprofit that helps feed the hungry in Emmet, Charlevoix and Antrim counties, complement each other well.
The first three are the food bank; the food rescue program, in which Manna rescued and redistributed a half-million pounds of useable food last year; and the food pantry that serves 100 families every week, functioning much like a grocery store where families can shop for food but with no bill at the end.
The fourth cog in Manna’s ongoing charitable wheel is also the newest: the backpack program for children.
“Our backpack program started in 2011,” explained Ruth Milks, backpack program coordinator and Manna volunteer. “We’d seen a need in the schools where kids were arriving at school on Monday morning hungry.”   
Once Manna was made aware of the problem, it launched the backpack program to help, starting with nine schools.
“The program expanded rapidly, and today we cover 44 schools, preschools and Head Starts,” Milks said.
Each school contacts Milks with its list of students in need (“each school runs the program independently,” Milks pointed out), and then Manna supplies the food each week to get the children through the weekend, when they don’t have access to school lunch programs.
“Each tote contains 3,000 calories worth of food,” Milks said. “A main entree, which is usually a pasta dish; cereals; two kinds of fruit; breakfast bars; and sometimes peanut butter and juice. The calories are about half of what kids would need over a weekend.”
The food is distributed in Meijer shopping bags to each child; originally, the food was put in backpacks, hence the program’s name, “but the kids didn’t like the backpacks,” Milks said. “So now we just put the Meijer bags into their own backpacks, and they like that a lot better.”
The children are surveyed every spring to find out what kinds of food they like. “For instance, currently they love macaroni and cheese, and especially ramen noodles,” Milks said. “And while of course it’s good to give them something you want them to eat, it’s better to put something in the bag they actually will eat. We also constantly change the contents so the kids don’t get bored with the food.”
The program has proved to be a success; right now, The Manna Food Project is serving backpacks to 2,280 children every week.
“It’s definitely helping the kids have food on the weekends, and they also often keep the fruit or snack bars for during the week, so this helps them get past the stigma of being ‘poor’ or not having snacks during school,” Milks said.
“June is the best time of year for us because you sit down and think, ‘holy cow, we fed 80,000 meals to kids over the school year.’ You reflect on that, take a short break, and then start working on the Snack Packs, our backpack equivalent program for summer, because kids have to eat then, too.”
In Traverse City, Traverse Bay Sunrise Rotary has established its own backpack program to help with a different need of economically stressed children.
“Ours isn’t food; our focus is on ‘school startup’ items, all the traditional back-to-school supplies you’d buy for a kid,” explained program coordinator Ryan Sterkenburg.
Pencils, pens, notebooks, calculators, scissors, binders and the backpack itself — all these things children need for school can easily add up in price, and can be tough to acquire for struggling families.
Rotary acquires lists of families who are utilizing the various free/reduced programs at the schools, and that helps them determine who might additionally be helped by the offer of a backpack.
“Each backpack contains about 22 items,” Sterkenburg said. “We spend a week each summer preparing and stuffing the backpacks; then parents are notified by Traverse City Area Public Schools that they qualify, and they can then pick up a backpack for each kid the third week in August each year.”
At the moment, the backpacks are provided to kindergarten through fifth-grade students; they’re not passed out to grades six through eight yet.
“There are usually other programs in place to help families by grade six, but if a family comes to us and asks if we can please continue the backpack program for their kid, of course we will,” confirmed Sterkenburg. “We’ve been focusing on the earlier grades first to help kids get a real foothold as they start school.”
The TC Sunrise Rotary backpack program also helps the latter end of schooling, but additionally supplying the backpacks to a certain faction of high school students.
“We also allot them to high school kids that the schools have identified as couch-surfing, or essentially homeless, but still making that effort to get to school,” Sterkenburg added, “so the program helps those with the highest need right now, but we’re continuing to evaluate it to keep a close eye on how we can best help.”
In 2016, Rotary passed out a total 1,300 backpacks, and the organization has found that they’ve been a real boon to kids who need these tools to learn and study.
“We get so many comments about the program from those who participate,” Sterkenburg said. “The kids are just beaming, and many of them ask, ‘is this really mine?’ when we pass the backpacks out. The parents are thankful, and we get such great letters. Some families go through five or six years of needing the backpack program, so we’re very glad it can help them.”
“It’s both a burden off of the parents, and I think the kids feel better because having these things makes them more like all the other kids — they don’t feel left out.”

For more information, or to offer support/donations, or if you would like your family to be included, you can find the Manna Backpack Program at mannafoodproject.org or call 231-347-8852. You can find the TC Sunrise Rotary Backpack Program at tcsunriserotary.org, or on Facebook, or inquire at a TCAPS school.

Kristi Kates is a contributing editor and freelance writer.



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