July 5, 2024

RSU 14 Backpack Program thwarts childhood hunger through take-home meals

By Masha Yurkevich

Studies have shown that even mild hunger can significantly impact a student’s school performance, behavior, and cognitive development as well as absenteeism, concentration and grades. This need was identified and thus, the RSU 14 Backpack Program was launched in 2011 as an effort to combat childhood hunger in our community.

RSU 14 is grateful for the support of community members
in funding the RSU 14 Backpack Program, which provides
food for children in need when school is not in session.
From left are RSU 14 Superintendent Chris Howell, donors
Bruce and Gail Small, and Marge Govoni of the RSU 14
Board of Directors. SUBMITTED PHOTO
“There are children that leave school on Friday and truly don’t know when their next meal will be, possibly not until Monday morning back at school,” says Ryan Roderick, District Chef for RSU 14. “The idea behind it was that although we may have a robust school nutrition program, there are still many more meals that school lunch doesn’t provide, most notably over the weekend.”

The Backpack Program is aimed at fulfilling that weekend need with nourishing snacks and easy to cook meals. Well–fed children are more energized and feel more secure, and this enables them to be better learners and have more success in school, Roderick said.

“The way the program works is we collect donations from the community, and we use those funds to purchase foods from various vendors. Hannaford has been a great partner over the years,” Roderick said. “We then have local volunteers that come by and pack the bags every week and our RSU 14 school staff help to make sure the bags get distributed to each school and child in need.”

Each bag generally includes some sweet and savory snacks, fruit cups, juice, shelf stable milk, cereals and a heartier meal option like macaroni and cheese, tuna, peanut butter, pasta with tomato sauce, and so on.

“My role in the program is to coordinate with Marge Govoni and purchase some of the food items from our other vendors,” Roderick says. “I also coordinate with our RSU 14 courier, Phil Hebert, to pick up and deliver the large orders from Hannaford. I also work with Marge to create our cycle menu; we wanted to make sure it has as much variety as is feasible in order to keep the offerings interesting. We often tweak it throughout the year, making sure to keep the costs as low as possible while still offering healthful and hearty foods that kids will eat and can feel confident in preparing themselves if necessary.”

The community can help in two very simple ways. The first is by donating; the rise in food cost over the years has been crushing for everyone and this program is no different.

“We do not accept food donations in an effort to be consistent and equitable with our offerings to the children” says Roderick. “We like to remind anyone who donates that every single cent goes directly to purchasing food and bags to put the food in, this program is run entirely by volunteers and there are no administrative fees or costs applied.”

Volunteering is another way that the community can help. If you are interested in volunteering to help pack bags on a weekly or intermittent basis, please reach out to RSU 14 volunteer coordinator Michelle Jordan at Mjordan@rsu14.org.

“The Backpack program is mostly in need of funding, we are currently looking for more regular donors, ideally local businesses looking to sponsor us and our kids,” says Roderick. “For reference, it costs us about $10 to fill a bag for one child for one weekend. It costs about $300 to fill bags for one child for the entirety of the school year. We currently help about 120 children across the RSU 14 school district.”

To be deemed eligible, a family can self-identify on the Free and Reduced form or directly, via phone call or email to the school nutrition program or their child’s school, teacher, counselor, administrator.

“We also have a team of RSU 14 staff that are trained and have experience identifying signs of hunger that can recommend a child for the program,” says Roderick. There is always an opt-out letter for recipients in the case that their circumstances change, or they feel they don’t require any additional help.”

Roderick says that he has learned a lot from being a part of this amazing program.

“I think it’s a wonderful example of the strength of our community and our school district and how much they care for the future of our children,” he said. “I think it also opened my eyes to a bigger lesson, even when it appears our towns may be thriving, growing, improving, there are still plenty of people and families that are just getting by, that could use just a little bit of breathing room in order to really succeed. And often it is those people, and those families that were given a lift that can then turn around and help the next person because they understand and appreciate how much it means.” <

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