Every Friday throughout the school year, children toss backpacks over their shoulders and hurry off for the weekend ahead. These backpacks can be stuffed with anything from homework and pencils to clothes for soccer practice, but they might be missing an essential item: food.
Blessings in a Backpack is a national non-profit organization that mobilizes communities, individuals and resources to provide nutrition for elementary school children who face food insecurity during the weekends. Teams of participants establish a relationship with a local school, purchase food, and fill backpacks to distribute to eligible students.
As of May 2016, the program has fed more than 87,000 children in 965 schools throughout the United States. One such school is Pittsburgh Arsenal 6-8 in Lawrenceville.
“The kids get really excited when we come down the hallway with food,” says Nina Fisher Hamilton, the Blessings in a Backpack program coordinator for Arsenal. “They have their favorite snacks, and it’s rewarding to see their excitement.”
Filled backpacks usually contain two entrees, two breakfasts, and snacks. All of the food is nutritional, non-perishable, and can be easily prepared by children, such as oatmeal packets and granola bars.
Students who qualify for federal free or reduced meal programs and receive parental consent can pick up a backpack on Fridays.
“Your school closes on Friday afternoon and doesn’t reopen until Monday morning,” says Blessings in a Backpack chief development officer Erin Kerr. “That’s about 65 hours when these children are going home to little food, or to cheap and unhealthy food. No child should have to go 65 hours without good nutrition.”
According to Blessings in a Backpack, children who were fed through the program found it easier to learn at school and exhibited fewer behavioral issues. They also reported feeling that their community cares more about them.
“The program has grown quickly because anyone, anywhere, who cares about making a difference in the life of a child can help,” says Kerr. “We have volunteers who range from kindergarteners to senior citizens in nursing homes. It promotes a connection.”
Hamilton got involved with Blessings in a Backpack after seeing a television commercial and researching nearby public schools that would have a large population of eligible kids. She soon found her passions of food, cooking, and caring for children blending together.
“We’re feeding kids who would otherwise show up Monday morning malnourished and tired,” says Hamilton, who is on the board of trustees of the Nina Baldwin Fisher Foundation. “Providing nourishment to an underprivileged population is a theme of my foundation, and I am happy to have my support go to an organization I’m physically involved with.”
The program at Arsenal started at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, and has already seen success. Although the number of kids has fluctuated, Hamilton and other volunteers currently purchase enough bulk food on Thursdays to fill at least 150 bags.
“Nothing’s more important than keeping kids nourished and healthy in whatever ways we can,” says Hamilton. She plans to continue her personal involvement and expand outreach to additional Pittsburgh city schools. “I’d love to get more parents to sign off on the piece of paper to give their children backpacks on the weekend.”
Blessings in a Backpack was selected as PEOPLE magazine’s 2012 charity partner, and Kerr says they plan to continue increasing annual growth and national partnerships. “What we’ve shown is that, whenever you hear about a problem and the easy solution to it, it’s hard not to become involved,” Kerr says. “We’re happy to serve about 87,000 children, but we’re not stopping here.”
As little as an $80 donation purchases enough food to feed one child for the entire 38-week school year. Blessings in a Backpack also provides resources for people like Hamilton who wish to become program coordinators in their own communities. Even spreading the word about childhood hunger helps, Kerr says. “We have so many resources to share. The least we can do is make sure our children are fed.”
Hamilton plans to keep caring for underprivileged children, right here in Pittsburgh. “These kids are no different from any other kids. They need food, and what’s more important than taking care of our youth?”