BackPack program helps feed Rapides students

Photo by The Town Talk, Tia Owens-Powers -- Food Bank of Central Louisiana Volunteer Jackie Taylor fills a bag for the 'BackPack Buddy' program.
Photo by The Town Talk, Tia Owens-Powers -- Food Bank of Central Louisiana Volunteer Jackie Taylor fills a bag for the 'BackPack Buddy' program.

The Food Bank of Central Louisiana is using backpacks to fight child hunger in local schools.

The nonprofit agency works with school districts in Central Louisiana to fill backpacks with nonperishable food items for students in need of a little help on the weekends.

Participating students pick up full backpacks on Friday afternoons and return empty backpacks to their schools on Monday.

These backpacks can change the lives of some of the estimated 23,100 children, which is 23 percent of the Central Louisiana children who are considered “food insecure,” according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study.

That means the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers them to lack access to enough food or nutritional foods, at times, for a healthy life for all members of a household.

During the 2012-13 school year, the Food Bank of Central Louisiana helped feed 1,023 students across 24 schools through its “BackPack” program.

Principal Deidra Anderson said the program is welcomed at Alma Redwine Elementary New Visionary Academy, with almost 200 of the school’s 251 students planning to participate this year.

“There is a need for it,” Anderson said. “I really think it means my kids will have meals on weekends.”

She said the school has about 98 percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunch, so there is a high participation in the “Backpack Buddy” program.

“We really encourage all of our pre-K to fourth-grade students to participate in Backpack Buddy,” she said.

The school has participated in the program for several years, and Anderson said older students often picked through the food for what they wanted and discarded the rest.

To prevent waste, she shifted the program to lower grades only, targeting fifth- and sixth-grade pupils on an “as needed” basis.

“The younger kids do a great job with it,” Anderson said. “Backpacks are delivered on Thursdays, sent home on Fridays.”

Assistant Principal Valeece Davis said the school provides slips for the Backpack Buddy program at the beginning of the year, and students return them if they want to opt out of the program.

Davis, who coordinates the program, said that provides some anonymity for the students who wish to participate.

The school’s first distribution will be Sept. 20. Backpacks include food items that children can microwave or prepare on their own, which Anderson said meets many of her students’ needs.

The program serves The Food Bank’s 11-parish area, including Rapides.

“We rely on the support from the local community to provide this critical program for children experiencing hunger, and we appreciate the individuals, churches, civic groups and businesses who provide financial and food donations,” said Jayne Wright-Velez, executive director of the Food Bank of Central Louisiana.