Backpack Weekend Food Program

Food insecurity or childhood hunger is a rising epidemic in the United States.  One in five children does not know where their next meal is coming from. With the US economy continually declining, the numbers are expected to grow.

The BackPack Weekend Food Program (BWFP) is the outgrowth of a study of the nutritional needs of school-aged children in Gaston County over the weekend especially during the school year.  Gaston County Schools has reported that since 2007 the number of students served free or reduced fee lunch has risen from 47% of the public school population to 59% in 2013.

In early 2011 while watching a TV program on the Food Network, Carolyn Niemeyer came upon a program featuring a back pack program in Rock Hill, SC.  According to the program, 1 in 17 children in that school district were hungry on the weekend. “This surely couldn’t be,” Carolyn thought.  After doing some research on her own, she discovered the astonishing truth and suspected the same may be true in Gaston County as well.  Carolyn contacted the Gaston County School System to discover they did not have an official weekend back pack program in the county, although some schools did have local churches providing food for students on the weekend.

Carolyn, mother of two and grandmother of five, went on a six month search to gain information about how she could help.  Believing a back pack program would work in Gaston County, she reached out to the community, and it responded. “I just knew that something had to be done, I couldn’t sleep thinking about little children being hungry,” said Carolyn.

CaroMont Health provided the professional nutrition advice through their chief dietitian with specially designed menus for both elementary and middle/high school aged children. The food items for the program are purchased at a wholesale bulk rate through an agreement with CaroMont Health and their Premier purchase program. CaroMont Health became the first partner in the project and has provided food bags for over 100 students each week at one of the elementary schools for the past three years.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Gastonia provides the warehouse space, the non-profit status, and has been a partner since the beginning providing food bags for over 50 students at an elementary school.  Pastor Brack East offered his support when Carolyn brought the idea of a backpack program to him.  “God gave Carolyn her passion for this program and we wanted to help out in any way we could, said Pastor East.”

The program is designed to provide a bag of nonperishable, individually-portioned, nutritionally-balanced food for students to take home in their backpacks on the weekend.  Schools choose to be involved with the program.  Each school is partnered with a local church or organization that has agreed to fund a set number of students in the program for at least one year.

The cost to feed a child for the weekend is under $5.00, which includes at least six meals.   The students receiving the weekend food bags are identified by teachers, counselors, principals, social workers, and school nurses as those most likely to be hungry on the weekend.

 “This program has the ability to provide some sort of stability to students,” Valerie Yatko, the Gaston County Schools Business and Education Partnership Director says.  “Just for children to be certain that they will not be hungry over weekend could translate to better performance and behavior in the classroom.  We are seeing some success with that.”

Many volunteers give their time each month to unload the tractor trailer load of food, organize the food items, count them for the partner food orders, and assist with distribution to the partners. Carolyn Niemeyer serves as the program’s coordinator.

There are many, many more volunteers in 36 partner churches or organizations that pack the food bags each week for over 740 students in 33 schools in the county.  They say they know their time is well spent and are committed to feeding hungry children on the weekends.

In the 2013-14 school year the BackPack Weekend Food Program provided 168,963 meals at a cost of $174,334.80.  The program has been recognized in the Community Foundation’s newsletter and was the winner of $10,000 in underwriting in the Community Give Back contest sponsored by WTVI PBS in Charlotte.  The Gaston County Commissioners commended the program, the partners, and the volunteers at their June meeting.

The BackPack Weekend Food Program is getting ready to begin a fourth year of operation.  The program expects to add at least three to five additional schools with approximately 100 more students.  Many schools will ask to increase their number of students needing the weekend food.  When this happens and the partner does not have the extra funds, the program will pay for these additional food bags. This past school year the program paid for 100 students, many of whom were homeless.  The cost for these extra students can run as much as $30,000 to $40,000 for the year.

There are many caring individuals, clubs and organizations who regularly send donations to the program.  The BackPack Weekend Food Program has had the good fortune to receive support from grants from local and regional foundations. The participation in the Community Foundation Run for the Money 12 was very successful this year.  Without this continued monetary support, the program would not be able to extend the numbers of food bags when they are needed.

 “I don’t see our number of students going down, but I do know our food costs will be rising as much as 5 to 7%,” said Carolyn.  “We have to make weekly adjustments to our food orders when we have costs increases.  To have the monetary support from these donations and grants is vital to our operation.”

Volunteers, donations, interest in the program are always welcome.

For more information about the BackPack Weekend Food Program, please email  bwfpgastoncounty@gmail.com.

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