Backpack Program Coalition forms to improve food distribution at city schools

Maureen Whitmer packs a food bag at Keister Elementary School. All photos courtesy of Cody Oliver

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

A once-disjointed effort to provide food to Harrisonburg students in need now enjoys the support of a coalition that hopes to better serve them.

Before Oct. 18, various “Backpack Programs” operated independently at most city schools, providing supplemental weekend food for students and their families. Some did not take advantage of local resources such as food banks, said Tamara Grant, the Backpack Coalition coordinator for Keister Elementary School and a leader in forming the division-wide coalition.

“Backpack Programs are embraced by food agencies such as Feeding America and Blue Ridge Area Food Bank because we get food out into the community in a different way,” Grant said. “Otherwise, children are entirely dependent upon their household adult finding transportation to and from a food pantry.”

Backpack Programs currently operate at four of the city’s six elementary schools, both middle schools and at Harrisonburg High School. All are being coordinated by the new coalition.

“The goal of the Backpack Programs is to solve an issue, food insecurity, with a community effort that doesn’t place a huge burden on school staff,” said Cody Oliver, executive director of the Harrisonburg Education Foundation (HEF), which helps to coordinate the programs.

“It is often hard to work across multiple schools and HEF offered to be that connection to these programs that are very much based in the community,” Oliver said.

HEF is providing a central fundraising hub that takes donations for all the programs. On a page that is part of the HEF website, donors can choose a program to support and an amount to donate. The website also explains how the coalition is organized, the responsibilities of the various partners and offers information on how to get involved.

While Thomas Harrison Middle School, Skyline Middle School and Harrisonburg High School are part of the coalition, their programs work a little differently than the elementary school programs “to navigate around the social sensitivity kids have about being seen with Backpack Program bags,” Grant said.

At the elementary schools, volunteers pack bags with a combination of foods ready for consumption by children and other groceries for meals to be prepared by adults. Some schools send the bags home with children while others have volunteers deliver them.

Thomas Harrison Middle School is partnering with the Salvation Army, which stocks a mobile food pantry to serve high-need neighborhoods within the district, alternating locations weekly. Skyline Middle School’s program works with The ARC of Harrisonburg and Rockingham, which helps pack and deliver bags.

HHS partners with Blue Ridge Area Food Bank to provide the Good Food School Market on the first Friday of each month. The HCPS Mobile Café, stocked with food from the food bank, allows students to “shop” for their needs immediately after school, on school grounds.

“Our strategy with the Coalition is to offer a diverse, patchwork approach to getting students the food they need, in the ways that work for them,” Grant said. “Between the HHS Good Food Market, a mobile pantry and Backpack bags going home with elementary school kids, we are coming at this issue from different directions and strategies.”

Keister Elementary is serving about 90 children and 48 adults with 61 grocery bags delivered by school personnel every Friday to homes, Grant said. The Keister Backpack Program, supported by Trinity Presbyterian Church, has been running for about 10 years.

Blue Stone Elementary, also supported by Trinity Presbyterian Church, just started its program and hopes to eventually pack 100 bags a week for children to carry home in their backpacks.

Spotswood Elementary, with the support of RISE, is distributing 30 bags a week. The program has been operating about 10 years.

Smithland Elementary also is providing 30 bags a week. The Smithland program recently started a financial partnership with RISE, but RISE is not contributing financially to the fund. The school PTO is fundraising and has about $1,500, Grant said.

Graphic outlining Backpack Program structure by Tamara Grant

All four schools are partners with Hope Distributed, an agency partner of Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

Stone Spring Elementary and Waterman Elementary are struggling to find support to start Backpack Programs.

“The pandemic has disrupted our parent network within each school district, but some more critically than others,” Grant said. “This is another reason why a Backpack Coalition is so important, because we are seeking broad, system-wide support of programs through awareness, fundraising and volunteer time. The coalition is eager to support any individual or group that wants to start a new program.”

Grant started the effort to build the coalition in 2019, reaching out to Blue Ridge Area Food Bank for help coordinating food distribution to “newcomer” students, children who were immigrants and refugees and who were placed at Keister Elementary to help ease their entry into the school system. Students would stay in the class for a few weeks or months, depending on their needs, before transferring to the school serving the district where they lived. Oftentimes these students stopped receiving Backpack meals even if their home school had a Backpack Program.

“There was not always enough funding or logistical support to easily add the new kids,” Grant said. “This issue became the initial motivation for pursuing a system-wide community collaboration.”

A meeting with HCPS Central Office to discuss initiating a coalition took place on Feb 14, 2020, about a month before schools shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic slowed Grant’s efforts to start the coalition, but in October 2020 she contacted the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank again and the Harrisonburg Education Foundation. A number of meetings with volunteers, HCPS Central Office, HEF, BRAFB and others continued through winter 2020, when Smithland Elementary and Skyline Middle School partnered with Hope Distributed.

Tamara Grant, foreground, and Melissa Marquez Weaver pack bags at Keister Elementary.

Grant said several schools found fiscal partners in late summer and early fall this year, which created accounts exclusively for Backpack Programs to fund their partner school’s program.

“Finding financial partners to collaborate with schools meant that we could create the coalition web page, donation platform and start fundraising,” Grant said. “The food, although deeply discounted, is not free.  Other than Keister Elementary, no school currently possesses funding for the entire current school year.”

While there are a number of programs addressing food insecurity in Harrisonburg, there is a need for the Backpack Programs, said Capt. Harold Gitau of the Salvation Army in Harrisonburg. “It is important that no kid or no family should go without a meal. If they cannot come to the Church or office to get food we can at least go where they are.”

Said Oliver, “The coalition really is a case of ‘stronger together’ in supporting our students and families. Donations, and even more importantly awareness of the need, is something that HEF is happy to support.”

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