The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 19, 2012

Backpack Food Program gears up for kids' school break

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Nicole Swanson was a lucky woman Wednesday.

When the volunteers she’d lined up to help fill boxes for the Backpack Food Program’s Winter Break boxes hit the end of their shift at noon, they just kept right on working.

Three hours later, they finally called it a day.

“The volunteers today stayed double. It’s pretty amazing,” Swanson said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without volunteers. The people who volunteer for us are really passionate.”

The volunteers gathered to assemble food into boxes that will go home with kids over winter break who, unfortunately, would probably be a lot hungrier without it. Normally the Backpack Food Program sends food home in backpacks with kids who need food during the weekends.

But when they go home for break, they’re not getting the free or reduced-priced breakfasts and lunches they normally get from school cafeterias. So the Backpack Food Program, thanks to some contributions from some participating schools, and a donation from Wynn and Ginnette Kearney, will be taking care of many of them.

There are more than 500 kids in the regular program that runs when school is in session. During the school break, a separate portion of the program for which kids had to sign up, they’ll be serving about 300 kids.

And that’s the number of boxes that had to be filled with enough food for kids to eat breakfast, lunch and snacks for 14 days. Each box, when filled, weighed 17.5 pounds.  They contain healthy, easy-to-prepare fresh and shelf-stable items such as fresh fruit, bread, yogurt, cheese, carrots, soup, chili and pancakes. More than 5,000 pounds of food and more than 500 gallons of milk and juice will be distributed.

Filling the boxes, of course, were volunteers.

Colleen Pankonin and her daughter, Brooke, were busy throwing pudding packs and fruit cups into boxes. Mom says volunteering for a program like this isn’t work. It’s uplifting.

“There are hungry children in our community, and this program combats that,” she said.

John Branstad agrees. He came to the ECHO Food Shelf, where the boxes were assembled, with the Greater Mankato Growth Leadership Institute. The group, which meets monthly, spent this month’s meeting volunteering, and a dozen or so of them were at ECHO.

When they came to ECHO, the Backpack Food Program was there and needed bodies, and the leadership participants happily jumped in.

Branstad said he regularly gives money to ECHO. This project gave him a chance to do a little more than that.

“It’s nice to see behind the scenes,” he said.

Like Pankonin, Branstad said his efforts didn’t really seem like work.

“It’s good, it’s energizing,” he said. “It’s the kind of work that feeds the spirit.”

The Backpack Food Program is in place at Kennedy, Franklin, Rosa Parks and Washington elementary schools. Melinda Wedzina, program director, said they’re hopeful they can branch out to other schools. To do that, they’ll need funding.

Over the course of the 2011-2012 school year, the Backpack Food Program provided 99,016 meals, or 68,179 pounds of food.