Perham’s Feeding Backpack Program helps about 200 children a week, providing them with meals on the weekends, but without community support, they may run short on supplies before the end of the school year.
That’s why Mary Nordbeck would like to get the word out about the program to encourage people to donate and volunteer to help put together the bags of food and distribute them.
The program started during the 2009-2010 school year after Liz Swanson and a small group of women from Calvary Lutheran Church attended a workshop on understanding poverty.
Swanson said during the workshop they learned about how the Crookston food bank had started a feeding backpack program.
“We knew there was a need for that kind of program in Perham, and we looked at each other and decided we could do that,” she said. “We came back, formed a committee and got it going.” Swanson recalls that first year having 14 volunteers and putting together 45 backpacks. From there, she said it just grew. The next year it was 71 backpacks a week, then 120, and now it’s close to 200.
There are Feeding Backpack programs across the country, each one hosted by a different group in a community, but the purpose is the same — to help children who may not be getting enough to eat on the weekends. Studies have shown that when children don’t eat enough on the weekends, it affects their performance in school. During the week they get enough to eat through school programs, but when the weekend comes, it’s a different story. That’s where programs like the the Feeding Backpack Program are meant to fill in that gap.
Children are nominated for the program through their schools. Julie Vomacka, a counselor at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School, said her role is to identify kids who might benefit from food going home on weekends and figure out how to distribute the food confidentially.
“It’s all based on referrals, through myself and the teachers. Parents receive a letter at the beginning of the year letting them know about the program and that they are enrolled for free, and they can choose to opt out,” Vomacka said.
The goal from the beginning was for the Feeding Backpack Program to be a community-wide effort, not just a Calvary thing, and volunteers have come from all over the community, according to Swanson.
With the pace that program has grown, they could now use some more volunteers and donations to help make it through the school year, Nordbeck said, as this will be the first year the program will have a shortfall.
“I’m not sure why there has been an increase,” she added. “I know the area has seen more people coming in for jobs, maybe the community outreach has improved in identifying the need. Not everyone who started on the program stays on it; families who get on their feet don’t stay on the program.”
Most of the financial support comes from the Friends of Friends fundraiser held in February.
The charity event has been the program’s main source of financial support over the years. Friends of Friends was started by a group of people in Ottertail who decided to do a fundraiser to help fight hunger. They distribute the funds raised to different communities in Otter Tail county.
Alison Francis with United Way of Otter Tail and Wadena Counties said their organization supports programs that try to fight hunger.
“The schools are our our front line. United Way works every day to get the word out. This is a great program,” Francis said.
If you would like to make a donation to the Feeding Backpack program or volunteer, call Mary Nordbeck or Tina Reed. Nordbeck can be reached at 218-298-2466. Reed can be reached 218-849-2979. Checks can be made out to Calvary Lutheran Church with “Backpack” in the memo line. Donations are tax deductible.