Board votes to accept ‘Blessings’

Blessings in a Backpack founder Stan Curtis, third from left, greets children from the program, which began in Lousiville, Ky. The group, founded in 2005, soon will provide backpacks filled with meals for the weekend to local students from low-income families.

Photos courtesy of Blessing in a Backpack

Children from the Blessings in a Backpack program sit with their backpacks full of six meals for the weekend. The program, which began in Louisville, Ky., in 2005, is set to start in Wyandotte soon.

Sunday Times Newspapers

WYANDOTTE — For most children, the weekend means sleeping in, cartoons and sports activities.

But for the 2,100 children in Wyandotte Public Schools who receive state-subsidized lunches, the weekend could mean going hungry.

A program set to begin in the district soon hopes to change that.

The school board voted unanimously Tuesday to allow Blessings in a Backpack, a nonprofit organization, to start their program at Garfield Elementary School before eventually branching out to other schools in the district.

Trustee Dana Browning plans to serve as local chair of the program, which on Fridays gives a backpack filled with six meals to children who are eligible for subsidized lunches, so that the children can share the meals with their families. On Monday, they bring the backpack back to school for it to be filled again by local volunteers for the next Friday.

Program representatives estimate approximately 150 of the school’s 281 eligible students will sign up to receive the meals.

The program was started in Louisville, Ky., in 2005 by former professional tennis player Stan Curtis, after he learned that teachers in the area had noticed students coming in on Mondays tired, sluggish and hungry because there was no food in their homes.

The program is now in 168 schools in 22 states and began in Michigan in 2008 with the Avondale school district, covering parts of Auburn Hills, Troy, Rochester Hills and Bloomfield Township. The program now reaches 15 districts in the state including Clawson, Grand Rapids, Royal Oak, Taylor and Houghton Lake.

In Avondale, teachers have seen a variety of positive results. Test scores increased 45 percent the first year of the program and 54 percent the second year. Attention spans and attendance also increased — and behavioral problems decreased.

“These were kids that within two years were not making it in school,” Michigan program chairwoman Cheryl Whitton said. “Now they have a chance to actually participate in the educational process.”

The program can be launched at Garfield as soon as the district raises the $5,000 startup cost. To raise the money, the program depends on a variety of sources. The schools provide the number of children in the subsidized lunch program, a food storage and packing area and staff to assist in handing out the food.

The North Woodward Community Foundation, based in Troy, provides a 501(c)3 status and tax credits for donations, seeks grants, sends out donation letters and provides a pass-through fund to handle everyday operations of the program and an endowment fund to secure its future.

The program purchases meals for $2.25 per student from Meijer, and a steering committee controls the program at the local level and seeks donations from local businesses and individuals.

“The money raised in Wyandotte will always stay in Wyandotte,” North Woodward Community Foundation Executive Director Tom Kaszubski said.

He said the program often benefits not just children, but entire families. He said he has heard of some students resorting to drastic measures to help feed their families before the program was implemented in their school.

“A lot of times, the children at lunch on Friday will hold back some of the food they receive and slip it into their pocket so they can share with their family,” Kaszubski said. “It’s heart-wrenching to hear those stories, but that’s what’s happening.”

At the meeting, board members voiced support for the program. They also brought up a few concerns, however, including the possibility that the food, which ships from a Meijer facility in Ohio, could be tampered with before it gets to the school.

Whitton assured board members that the food is packed in shrink-wrapped cases, minimizing the risk.

“The Meijer store does not touch the pallet, and it is picked up by the volunteers that have been assigned to do the pickup and brought to the packing site,” Whitton said. “The only people who handle the product are the ones who take it out of the package, pack it into the backpacks and put the backpacks in the bins.”

Trustee Kathy Bedikian expressed concern that the program does not extend to the summer months, as the students who use it are kept confidential and officials don’t have access to their information when school is out. In Colorado, a pilot program for the summer months was tested, where parents picked up the backpacks, but it was discontinued when less than 10 percent of parents showed up.

“It’s not to say that just because we can’t fulfill all the need, we shouldn’t fulfill any of the need,” Bedikian said.