Backpack Buddies; Helping Battle Student Hunger


“Provide for the basic needs, and then the learning can happen.” Maple Lake Elementary social worker, Lisa Weninger used these words when describing an issue that affects many students throughout both the elementary and high school: hunger. Through a new program called Backpack Buddies, Maple Lake Public Schools hope to battle hunger and help the students focus on school, rather than worry about not having food for the weekend.
Backpack Buddies is a supplemental food program that provides nutritious meals and snacks for students over weekends, free of any charge to the children and their families. Any student receiving free lunch at school is eligible to receive the backpacks over the weekend. If someone is not currently part of the free lunch program at school and therefore does not qualify for the Backpack Buddies program, but struggles with a tight food budget, the Annandale Food Shelf is another available resource.
To those eligible for the Backpack Buddies program, a letter is sent home informing families about the program. Along with the letter, there is a simple sign-up sheet. The families who receive this letter are completely anonymous. Those working with the food service are the only people aware of which families receive free lunches at school and they send the invitation to participate. After signing up, the families remain anonymous to all but those heading the program including the building principals, Kris Harlan and Dave Hansen, and the school social workers, Lisa Weninger and Nichole Rengel. The Backpack Buddies is currently serving 24 families.
The Backpack Buddies program began in the area with an idea from former Maple Lake graduate and wRight Choice teacher, Leesa Sherman. wRight Choice is a program that acts as an alternative to suspension for students in grades 6-12 who make poor decisions. Service project work is part of the  wRight Choice Program routine and the Backpack Buddies Program was a project developed by Leesa last year, serving one school in Buffalo. This year, she decided to expand the program to other Buffalo schools and our schools in Maple Lake. The students at wRight Choice have been packing the backpacks for the Maple Lake Schools during September and October. Starting this week, the backpacks will now be packed in the elementary at Maple Lake. The school has had some great support for the program with a generous start-up donation from the Maple Lake Lions Club. That donation enabled the schools to purchase backpacks for all the participants and is helping to purchase contents for the backpacks. Mrs. Harlan also received one personal donation from a caring individual from the community for this project. The local girl scouts have even gotten involved by planning a food drive to take place in November.
Local businesses have made an impact on the program as well. “Maple Lake Elementary is collaborating with the Annandale Food Shelf,” said Weninger, “and they are helping us with collecting what we need.” The support from outside parties has made purchases of food and backpacks possible. 
Before each weekend or break, numbered backpacks are filled with relatively easy-to-make food. The amount of food in the backpacks varies depending on family size, but the bags usually include a meal or two and snacks. “We pack bread many of the weeks,” Harlan said. “We’ve done sandwich things like peanut butter and jelly.” 
Once the backpacks are filled, they are delivered to the family according to their number. That way, the identities of those receiving the food remains unknown. Once the weekend or break is over, the students return the backpacks to the school and the process begins again for the next weekend.
The Backpack Buddies program is so important because there are a lot of students who don’t have food available at home. “This program has shown that it is needed because we hand the backpacks out on Friday and I got every backpack back on Monday morning at my door,” Rengel said.  Furthermore, data studies have shown that when students are not hungry their grades go up and they display less behavioral issues.
“It’s been very rewarding handing them [the backpacks] out. Sometimes we have adults pick the backpacks up and the people have been very gracious and appreciative,” said Harlan.
In order to keep the Backpack Buddies program successful, the coordinators at Maple Lake Public School have applied for grants and are hoping for help from the community. Donations of any kind, whether monetary or food, are greatly appreciated. If anyone would like to learn more or make a donation to this program, contact Kris Harlan at Maple Lake Elementary.