Local Program Helps Combat Childhood Hunger
Employees from Peregrine Leadership Institute help pack meal bags for children Dec. 3
To not have access to food at any age is a burden, but for children, it is entirely out of their control. No stranger to helping prevent childhood hunger in Campbell County, Gillette Blessings in a Backpack has been stepping up to ensure that kids in need don’t go without weekend meals since its inception in 2010. Over Thanksgiving weekend, the non-profit group distributed 785 food bags of healthy snacks and kid-friendly meals to local schools to help feed area children who otherwise might have gone without eating.
According to group co-coordinator Elly Henning, the team works closely with Campbell County School District (CCSD) school counselors, who she considers the hub of the operation, to help identify students in need. Some might just need temporary assistance, Henning noted, but others might need help throughout the school year.
They typically provide 750 – 800 bags each week, Henning said, but that number fluctuates based on need.
“It’s unfortunate that we even have to have this program,” she said, “but the fact that we do and can help out is wonderful,” she said.
About 17% of Campbell County children face food insecurities, according to Feeding America, which equates to about 2,290 children in the community. A 2016 needs assessment by the Campbell County Community Advocacy, Resources, Education (CARE) board further found that 32% of local residents were worried about the rising cost of food.
The numbers are grim, but Henning and others find hope in the tidal wave of support they receive both in donations and volunteer help.
“When it comes to fundraising and volunteerism in the Gillette area,” Henning said, “the chapter is one of the strongest in the nation.”
Currently, the group delivers weekend meals to most of the schools in the county, including 16 of the 18 elementary schools (excluding Recluse and 4-J), both the middle and high schools, Heritage Christian School, and the Children’s Development Center and Head Start programs. All of the food assistance is 100% funded by charitable donations, and even the group’s warehouse space has been donated.
“Gillette is just incredible and has allowed the program to grow as needed,” she said, adding that they’d be lost without fundraisers held by various local businesses and groups who also come out to help pack and deliver on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
It costs around $100 to feed a child each weekend for the entire school year, Henning said, which includes six menu items per week. Elementary students receive bags with two breakfasts, two snacks, and two main dishes, while junior high and high schools each have a pantry-style option where students can choose what they need.
This year, Henning, and fellow co-coordinator Jenn Palmer, also incorporated healthier food options, such as canned fruit, trail mix, healthy cereals, and soups, as well as kid-friendly microwavable items and ones with easy open tops or tabs.
“What makes this program special is the reality that there are some kids who don’t have food over the weekends, and that is a crazy and insecure place for a child to be,” Henning said. “It’s never the child’s fault when that happens. It’s based on the circumstances of the parents or caregivers, where things like job loss and sickness can impact the entire family or household and create a void that the schools aren’t set up to handle. That’s where we step in.”
The local chapter only operates during the school year, but the Edible Prairie Project (EPP) is currently preparing to fill the summer gap with the launch of the first Summer Weekend Meals for Kids Program in 2020.
“Hunger doesn’t end when the school year ends,” Erin Galloway, co-founder and co-executive director of EPP, said.
To volunteer or help prep the warehouse, pack bags, or hold a fundraiser, contact Henning and Palmer at (307) 228-0311 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the local chapter, visit the Blessings in a Backpack website.