Backpack program

Tina Kebow and Deb Sturgill work together to package beans for the backpacks.

In 2014, Deb Bronnes Sturgill was volunteering at her grandson’s school in Portland when she saw a semi-truck pull up full of food. Curious about it, she learned Northwest Harvest supplied food items to fill backpacks for children who didn’t have food on weekends.

“I thought, what a wonderful idea,” Sturgill said.

More than 30 percent of South Bend’s population live below the poverty level, including an estimated 187 students in the South Bend School District. In 2016, the South Bend School Board voted to provide breakfast and lunch meals to all students, regardless of income, said School Superintendent Jon Tienhaara.

That assures hunger pangs are covered during school days. But what about weekend and non-school days, such as holidays, teacher workshops and vacations?

Backpack food program

Luwanna Graham packs tortillas into bags for the backpacks.

This need prompted Sturgill to take the backpack idea to a council meeting at the First Lutheran Church of South Bend. Then-Pastor Laurie Johnson was looking for projects to best serve the community, and “we (the council) decided this would be a good project,” Sturgill said.

“Early in 2016, we (served) the 10 neediest children, selected by the principal, on weekends and non-school days until the end of school in June,” Sturgill reported to the church council.

School counselor Kayla Camenzind helped to find more students for the program. “Kayla quickly identified 20 more children,” Sturgill wrote in 2017, “and her working level of Spanish allowed her to relieve some confusion and apprehension within the Hispanic population.

“Additionally, she was able to communicate with our Hispanic families on food choices. With this information, we now purchase bulk beans and rice.”

Identifying the need prompted the program, but funding fuels it.

“For the year ending June 2018 the average cost per recipient for our program was $278.24,” Sturgill reported. “Due to inflation, … costs have risen this year to an anticipated $475 (per recipient). Given our case load of 36 youth we anticipate costs of $17,100 for the current school year.”

Mindful of expenses, volunteers are always searching for new funds.

Backpack program

Deb Sturgill packs prepared and fresh food items into a double-bagged “backpack” in the foreground; Tina Kebow, in the background, double checks each stack to see that each student gets all available items each week.

Original funding came from church organizations.As costs increased, the group turned to the wider community. Donations now come from organizations, businesses and individuals.

“We get checks from a man who doesn’t even live in this area; he sends us money each month,” Sturgill said.

Pastor Dale Larson at First Lutheran is pursuing a grant through ELCA World Hunger Domestic, a Lutheran organization. “If we get the grant, we could do this for three years without begging for money, here and there, constantly,” said Sturgill. “We’re hoping, we’re praying, to get that money.”

Tina Kebow, working with AmeriCorps as a nutrition outreach and education specialist last year, studied the long-term effects of hunger on learning. She said studies show that “children living in poverty … score lower on standardized tests and are less likely to graduate from high school.”

Kebow’s service with AmeriCorps ended, but the Aberdeen resident feels so strongly about the BackPack Program, she still volunteers once each Wednesday when volunteers buy, sort and pack a variety of nutritious, satisfying, easy to prepare food items for student recipients.

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