Helping hungry children

WRITTEN BY DICK MASON, THE OBSERVER OCTOBER 21, 2010 05:02 AM

The Friday Backpack Program is back.
Back for a third straight school year and back with increasing momentum. The number of Union County elementary schools participating in the program, which provides food to children from low-income families, is up two this fall. This means the number of children helped by it may jump from 123 in 2009-10 to 180 this school year, said Friday Backpack Program volunteer Carlene Crampton of La Grande. She and Barbara Hicks, also of La Grande, are the program’s leaders.

All four elementary schools in the La Grande School District are again participating in the Friday Backpack Program. Joining them this fall are Imbler and Union elementary schools.

Most children served by the program receive food each Friday at their school. Students at Union Elementary are receiving it on Thursdays because the school is on a four-day week.

Crampton still remembers how excited a student got when he saw Friday Backpack Program food being brought to his school two years ago.

“Wow! It looks like you are going to have a party,’’ the boy said.

The Friday Backpack program is designed to meet the needs of hungry children when food resources are not available such as weekends and school vacations. The food is meant to supplement their weekend meals, not be a primary source of nutrition, Crampton said.

Many children are proud to bring Friday Backpack food home but might be embarrassed to have classmates know of their family’s needy status. This means the distribution is designed to prevent others from knowing who receives the food. All items are put in the students’ backpacks. Since almost all children bring backpacks to school it is easy for students receiving food to keep it a secret. Children receiving food who do not have a backpack are provided them at some schools. Backpacks are also available from Friday Backpack Program.

Only children who have signed parental permission letters provided by the Friday Backpack Program can receive food. Each school keeps the names of children receiving food through the Friday Backpack Program confidential.

The local backpack program is part of a nationwide effort that started in Iowa several years ago. The Friday Backpack Program in Union County is run by about 20 volunteers led by Hicks and Crampton. The volunteers collect and purchase food and bring it to a pantry at the Church of Christ in La Grande. Each Wednesday they bring in new donated food and pack it into bags. The food is then brought to the participating elementary schools.

The bags weigh several pounds and are filled with items such as canned tuna, chicken soup, Rice a Roni, oatmeal, granola, fruit drinks, fruit and pudding cups and much more.

The food is that which has been donated at collection sites and purchased with money contributed to the program. Friday Backpack items are purchased by volunteers who are astute bargain hunters.

“They are our super shoppers, our shopping queens,’’ Crampton said.

People who want to make food contributions to Friday Backpack can do so at the following locations:

Cook Memorial Library.
Central, Island City, Imbler and Union elementary schools
the Oregon State University Extension office in Island City
the Zion Lutheran, Nazarene, First Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ churches in La Grande.
Grande Ronde Retirement Residence
Apple Eye Care
Curves
Maurices
Grocery Outlet in Island City
Union Market in Union
Aggies in Union

Green Friday Backpack bins are at each drop site. Every bin has a list of the type of food needed.

Each drop site will soon have a poster with drawings of some of the food items people are encouraged to donate. The poster includes cans of tomato and chicken noodle soup, peanut butter, granola bars, raisins and instant oatmeal. The poster was drawn by Lexi Feldman, a La Grande Middle School seventh-grader.

Food items most needed at drop sites include peanut butter and canned meat, Hicks said.

People are also encouraged leave food coupons at the drop sites and include them in donations they send in.

Donations to Friday Backpack are tax-deductible because the program is run under the umbrella of First Presbyterian Church in La Grande. The connection provides Friday Backpack with 501(c)(3) tax-deduction status. The pantry space at the Church of Christ is provided free of charge.

Deliveries of Friday Backpack program food are now being made to Central and Willow elementary schools in La Grande and Union Elementary. Deliveries start at Greenwood and Island City elementary schools next week and will begin soon after that at Imbler Elementary.

Crampton said the Friday Backpack Program would not be successful without major help from participating schools. She said the staffs at the schools do a great deal of work in running the program, everything from identifying the children eligible to getting permission from their parents to allow them to participate.

“All we do is deliver the food,’’ Crampton said. “It is a partnership.’’

Friday Backpack leaders hope to later have all elementary schools in all Union County communities involved in the program. This can not be done, however, until people from the communities not in the program volunteer to assist. To become a Friday Backpack volunteer, call 963-5114.

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