Backpack Programs Provide Extra Help for Families in Idaho

Idaho Foodbank provides 63,000 food backpacks annually and over 46,000 summer meals for kids within the state. Kyle Silverman is the Nutrition Services Manager of the Foodbank, directing their children’s and nutrition education programs. Kyle sees these programs as ways to help working families “stretch their dollars,” enabling them to spend their limited money elsewhere.

The science and technology sectors are expanding in Idaho, but low-wage jobs are prevalent. Idaho ranks second in the country for children living in foster care or away from their parents and 42nd in higher education attainment. A recent report from the United Ways of the Pacific Northwest, which uses a standard called ALICE, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed to get a more accurate picture of financial hardship in the state, defines one in three people in Idaho as working poor. Roughly one in five children under 18 in the state live in poverty.

In Idaho, like other Pacific Northwest states, manufacturing, agriculture, mining, forestry, and tourism are the principal industries. Potatoes, wheat, and malt for beer are the major crops. Barrel cheese, a raw product for processed cheese, is produced here along with other food processing. Coordinating transportation across the entire state is a challenge that the Foodbank addresses by using three branches to facilitate deliveries.

For the Foodbank, serving rural communities is a challenge, but strong partnerships with schools are important to connect with those families that are struggling. The Foodbank relies on school counselors, social workers, and teachers to identify the kids who are most in need of the backpack program since they’re “not on the ground.” Kyle explains: “They do a fantastic job. They care so much about their kids and know what’s going on at home. They’re coming in every day, asking for more food at lunch, or snacks, saying, ‘I’m hungry.’” She also sees that involving parents in the process helps with improving communication between the school and families.

The backpacks are packed by enthusiastic volunteers from corporate, church, and other groups. They contain two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and two snack items and are intended to provide the nutritional requirements for kids when they are out of school over the weekend. The challenge is providing a variety of options that are shelf-stable, cost effective, lower in sodium, nutritionally sound, and that kids will actually eat. Items like pop top cans are necessary in case kids don’t have a can opener or someone at home to help them—and they are also more expensive. Funding support from partners, like Hunger Is, helps purchase nutritious food to fill the backpacks.

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To continually learn and improve, the Foodbank conducts a survey at the end of each school year. The kids overwhelmingly love the program and are excited to get their backpacks. Reading their comments provides insight into their lives at home. Children in southwest Idaho, for example, report: “I like it cuz sometimes we run out of food and don’t have money to get more” or “It helps with grocery shopping because we don’t have much money.” Better nutrition also improves their ability to stay focused at school. A school social worker notes that “teachers report that the children are more alert and active on Mondays” when they have adequate nutrition over the weekend.

For parents, knowing that their children have nutritious food over the weekend relieves some stress. For parents who are working and still can’t make ends meet, time and income are extremely limited. They might have a disability, unstable housing, or jobs that require them to work on weekends. Often they must work two or three low-wage jobs to get by and they still struggle to afford childcare. As one parent in eastern Idaho said: “I love it because I work all week and most of the time I won’t have enough time on the weekend to cook good meals.” Or they might not “be present” because of drug or alcohol abuse. “Backpacks are for the kiddo who doesn’t have help at home for whatever reason,” Kyle continues. “It’s not our place to judge and it’s not their fault.”

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Since some kids wound up sharing their food with other family members, it was a “catalyst” for the Foodbank to create a school pantry program. Now, families can obtain food boxes and are better served. In the summer, the Idaho Foodbank operates a mobile, “ice cream truck model” summer meal program to deliver healthy, packed lunches in a refrigerated truck.

Being in a more conservative state, the Foodbank stresses that they are a “private, independent, non-profit” and acknowledges that programs for kids “tugs at people’s heartstrings.” Discretion is important because “kids can be cruel.” The Foodbank encourages schools to make student participation in the program confidential. They might be called out of class and place the food backpack into their school backpack and “no one’s the wiser.”

Hunger Is, a joint charitable program of the Albertsons Companies Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), builds awareness and raises funds to end childhood hunger. The Idaho Foodbank received a grant to fund efforts in Idaho. This is the second in a WhyHunger series of profiles of grant recipients and their impact.

Jess Powers