School backpack programs do what they can to help hungry students get through the long holiday

Photo from Joan McGrath

Students from Guilderland’s School-to-Work Program help with stocking, inventorying, and packing food to be distributed by teachers to hungry students. School-to-Work students are “thrilled” to be helping other students, said the coordinator of Guilderland High School’s backpack program, Joan McGrath.

ALBANY COUNTY — The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York tries to put together “a little bit more abundant backpacks” for food-insecure students to take home over the holidays, said Executive Director Mark Quandt.

Many districts — including Guilderland, Voorheesville, and Berne-Knox-Westerlo — have programs so that, during the school year, students who receive free and reduced-price lunches can also take home food over the weekend in a backpack.

“But we can’t cover the whole period of time. The backpack program is not designed for that,” Quandt said, adding that the Regional Food Bank hopes that families are also visiting local food pantries. Many local food pantries, he said, create special holiday baskets to give to needy families at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  

“All the food they would need for one-and-a-half weeks wouldn’t fit in the backpacks,” Quandt said.

The last day of classes at local schools was Dec. 21. Schools start back in session on Jan. 2, meaning 11 days without school. Some students are dependent upon schools for free or reduced-price breakfasts, lunches, or both.

The number of students in the Guilderland school district living in poverty tripled over recent years. In 2007-08, five percent of students there were disadvantaged; the number rose to 14.9 percent in 2014.

The recipients used to be determined by students who received free or reduced-price lunches, but now include other triggers such as WIC, a nutrition program for women, Infants, and Children, and HEAP, the home-energy assistance program that helps people with heating and cooling costs.

Rebecca Gardner of the Capital Area School Development Association told The Enterprise in 2015 that suburban poverty is hidden and involves such a stigma that families will go to great lengths to mask it.

Donations to the Regional Food Bank remain “pretty steady” over the year, Quandt said, since they come from food companies donating food that they cannot sell but that is “still perfectly good to eat,” including food that’s been overproduced, lots involving some kind of mistake, an imperfect product, products nearing the code date, and damaged products.

In Guilderland, the Guilderland Food Pantry supplements the donations from the Regional Food Bank.

The program at BKW’s elementary school depends on donations from churches, the Kiwanis Club, community members, fire departments and auxiliaries, and school staff members, coordinator Colleen Demuth told The Enterprise a year ago.

In Voorheesville, the principals of the three schools combined their discretionary funds to support the program a couple of years ago, and then asked for and received funding from the Parent-Teacher Association for the 2017-18 school year.

‘Little extra things’

The food bank provides some of the food for several of the backpacks programs at local school districts. These programs provide a backpack, given out on Fridays, containing a number of food items for students — and their families — to eat at home over the weekend.

The backpacks contain items like a box of macaroni and cheese, a jar of peanut butter and jelly, a loaf of bread, a milk card good for a gallon, some snack items, pieces of fruit, and juice boxes.

Guilderland High School, Guilderland Elementary School, Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s elementary school, BKW’s secondary school, and the Voorheesville school district all have programs.

A year ago, several programs, including Guilderland High School’s and Voorheesville’s kindergarten-through-12th-grade program each had about 15 students. This year the numbers at Voorheesville had risen, but the principal of Voorheesville’s elementary school, Jeffrey P. Vivenzio, asked The Enterprise not to print numbers, since parents do not like to draw attention to the program.

“We try to make everything fit within the backpack, because we want it to remain as discreet as possible,” Vivenzio said, “because we don’t want to call attention.”

Voorheesville is fortunate, he said, in having a local volunteer group, known as “Acts of Kindness,” that supports various community endeavors including the school backpack program.

“They’ll put together a special care package to support families, and we’ll put that in the backpack,” he said. The content varies but ties in to holidays, he said. So at Christmastime it might include some packets of hot chocolate with marshmallows, “little extra things to help make it nice and make it go along with the holiday season,” he said.

Local churches are also a source of support, Vivenzio said.

“I think people are especially sensitive to neighbors going hungry over the holidays,” said Quandt of the Regional Food Bank.