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It’s hard to believe as wealthy as America is, and with the government programs that are available, that there are children who do not get enough to eat outside of school, but it’s true. It’s true here in Vandalia.
It is this simple fact that prompted Parkview Free Methodist Church to start Backpack Food for Kids in Jefferson Primary School just across the street from their building.
The program discreetly provides food for children who are at risk of going hungry over the weekend and holidays. This can be due to parental negligence, but more often is the result of something like serious illness in the family or just the difficulties of struggling to make ends meet in an economic environment where jobs are scarce.
Backpacks are stocked with nutritious, child-friendly, easy-to-prepare food and distributed to children on the last day before the weekend.
Their identities are kept confidential. The backpacks are labeled with numbers, and only the faculty and staff distributing the backpacks know which child belongs to which pack.
Donna Cripe, principal at Jefferson Primary School said, “I believe that the Backpack Food Program has truly helped some of our families who were struggling this year.
“In the last school year, one of our parents who had been laid off was able to find another position and felt someone else might need the help more, so the person bowed out of the program.
“I think this really shows that our parents are trying to do the best for their children. This program helps them to do this, and when they feel they don’t need the help any longer they communicate that to us,” Cripe said.
The program is modeled after the many successful programs already in place all over the country. A number of these programs are guided and supported by America’s Second Food Harvest, a national network of food banks.
“Unfortunately,” said the local program’s coordinator, Veneda Brown, “the Springfield food bank that serves our area does not carry the shelf-stable foods in individual packages appropriate for the backpacks, and so they were unable to help us. We had to start it on our own.”
The small Vandalia church made a commitment in April 2009 to support eight children, at approximately $15 each per week in food. Through word of mouth, presentations and grant proposals, they have gotten support from the community to add four more children during the last school year and more this year.
Some of the program supporters include Walmart, Vandalia Ministerial Alliance, J & E Scarpaci Foundation, Fayette County YMCA, Women of the Moose and a local bridge club.
One individual has designated $60 a month to sponsor a child at the school.
“But the need is so much greater,” Brown said. “Half of the children at Jefferson Primary School are eligible for free and reduced lunches, and many would be candidates for our program.
“Children in need also attend the three other schools in Vandalia, not to mention Head Start.”
She considers what they have now a “pilot program” and hopes, with further community support, to expand into all the schools.
Backpack food programs have been shown to increase attendance, decrease behavior problems, improve concentration abilities of students and improve student academic achievement.
Businesses, individuals and groups can help by donating money to purchase food. Donations can be sent to: Backpack Food for Kids at Parkview Free Methodist Church, 1507 W. Jefferson St., Vandalia, Ill. 62471. Call Veneda Brown at 283-0799 for more information.