Prevalent problem of 'food insecurity' addressed in backpack programs

On Board Online • August 13, 2018

By Gayle Simidian
Research Analyst

Skipping school three times per week during the school year is considered chronic absenteeism, and that's exactly what one third-grader at Gilbertsville-Mount Upton Central School District did last fall. But her attendance in her rural Otsego County school improved dramatically beginning in January, when the district included her in a new food backpack program, according to Raquel Norton, the district's library media specialist and backpack program coordinator.

The program, done in cooperation with the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, serves about 20 needy students during the school year. The backpack program has "opened up a lot of eyes" in the local community to "kids starving at our school," Norton said.

About 8 percent of U.S. households with adults and children are classified as "food insecure," according to the most recent data kept by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In general, households with children are more likely to be food insecure, which means it's uncertain whether every member of a household will get enough to eat.

Backpacks are usually distributed on Fridays and are designed to provide a weekend of meals for the child. Typical content would be three breakfast foods such as cereal or granola bars and three meals like macaroni and cheese or soup, canned vegetables, bread, a snack such as popcorn and a couple of juice boxes. Students also receive a card good for two gallons of milk per month at grocery stores.

It costs $183 per year to feed one student through a school backpack program, according to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, one of eight food banks in the state.

The food bank serves just shy of 200 schools in 20 counties. Its website states that 153,000 bags were handed out to students by the food bank in 2016-17.

In rural Columbia County, students' faces "light up" upon receiving a backpack, according to Laura Sarno, school psychologist at Ichabod Crane Central School District. She initiated a school backpack program for the elementary/middle school students in her district, then handed it off to another school staff member. (Sarno's new project: a therapy dog program.)

Parents seem grateful for the assistance, Sarno said. She noted that a local artist, Chris Kline, helped finance the program by donating money from the sale of blankets made in association with his theater project, "O.K. - The Musical."

Neither of these two school-based programs currently operate in the summer. In many parts of the state, community organizations have been trying to fill that need. For instance, People's Place, a non-profit thrift store and food pantry in Kingston, distributes bags of food during the summer to families in Ulster County with school-age kids.

Over the course of 10 weeks, 80,000 meals will be served to people through this program, said Christine Hein, who directs the non-profit. Funding comes from the Farm Fresh Food Initiative of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley.

Each year, People's Place conducts a survey for families that receive the bags of food. Results from that survey prompted Hein and her deputy director, Heidi Hill-Haddard, to create Bag Holiday Hunger, an offshoot of the summer program which provides food for families with children during the December holiday week school vacation.

To learn more about food insecurity across the nation, go to .

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