The warehouse behind Chisholm City Hall was full on April 9. Entering a side door at 2 p.m., one was met with faces of volunteers who were anxiously listening to directions from Elizabeth Kelly from the United Way.
Kelly, who is the development and special events director for the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota, leads the Buddy Backpack program.
Everyone in the packed room wore a name tag with their group and responsibility listed. Together, each team packed a meal kit, tore down packaging and loaded boxes of packed kits with each team member part of the assembly line
Each prepackaged meal kit is stored in a plastic bag and holds two milks, one fruit and vegetable juice, two breakfasts, two hearty meals and several nutritious snacks — a total of 12 items. Each meal kit costs about $5.
"The Buddy Backpack program provides critically needed food support to children who do not have enough to eat or proper nourishment over the weekend," said Kelly.
"Receiving these meal kits makes the children feel cared for and secure and fills their tummies so they can return to the classrooms on Mondays ready to learn, grow and thrive."
The Mesabi Daily News reports that Buddy Backpacks was piloted in the spring of 2011 in the Mesabi East Schools and has expanded from there.
"On the Iron Range, we have 37 schools and Head Start locations served;" said Kelly, "in Koochiching County we serve five schools and Head Start locations."
Benefiting from this program is 787 kids on the Iron Range and 140 in Koochiching County. Buddy Backpacks will pack and distribute 30,000 meal kits this year. Packing these meal kits will take about 20 packing sessions with the help of 900 volunteers.
Standing off to the side from the packers, Barb Dobson and Linda Anderson present a donation check to Kelly from their churches Holy Trinity and Faith Lutheran.
During the Lenten session, the congregations raised money for Buddy Backpack through various programs such as Coffee 'an, Awesome Apples and the penny bucket.
"This is something we always want to keep up," said Dobson voicing her support of the program.
"It is amazing how many people will come out and do this," said Anderson looking at the groups of packers efficiently filling pallet after pallet with boxes full of meal kits.
She snapped a photo. "I am going to show this to the people at church! People bring in their pennies, nickels and dimes and this is what happens because of it."
The number of meal kits provided to each school is dependent on need.
"The number is based on a percentage of the school's population, three to five percent," explained Kelly, "but then is based on need."
Looking at the efficient packing session Kelly said they would be packing about 1,600 meal kits that day or less than two weeks worth of kits.
"We fully support the program," said Eveleth-Gilbert Superintendent Jeff Carey. Some of his students receive the bags each Friday. "It is a great program for kids who don't have resources for snack or meals on the weekend." Carey, who is also the elementary principal at Franklin Elementary, said the school's nurse puts the prepackaged bags into the children's backpack.
Roosevelt Elementary Secretary, Patty Pervenanze, has seen students' reactions to receiving the prepackaged bags in both her current position and while she worked at the Parkview Learning Center.
"They are thrilled because they have food to eat!" she said Thursday afternoon.
"Sometimes some of the students are a little embarrassed to receive the program." Roosevelt students' bags are put right in their locker so there is some privacy. "They know it is there and waiting for them."
Pervenanze said she has heard of students who have been excited to have food of their own — they take ownership in the bag.
This hiding and hoarding of food is a sign of food insecurity.
"I heard of some students who hide their bag under their bed at home," she explained.
"Having food is a basic need. When a basic need is not met, a child is unprepared to learn," said Mary Spang, the director of Health Services for St. Louis County Schools. "If you take away the food insecurity they will be better prepared to learn. When these kids leave school on Friday and know they won't have enough food over the weekend, Monday is a long way away."
A hungry child will be tired, complain of headaches and stomach aches and be fidgety or restless. Not only are these complaints distracting from them but often their class, too.
"If there is no school on Friday, Thursday the students will be asking if they will still receive the food," reported Spang. The anxiety exhibited by these children speak to the importance of these programs, educators say. With this program the kids know "they have something to eat and enough to get to school on Monday. It takes away that worry."
Before the United Way began providing this program, no organizations met this need. School nurses have long been on the frontline of this and similar situations.
The recipients of this program are kept anonymous and up to the schools' discretion. Spang has made the phone calls offering this program to families.
"It can be an uncomfortable phone call to make but most parents are grateful." At that point, Spang also informs the parent of other resources available in the community but said, "It is tough," while describing how some live further away.
"When people hear about these programs they imagine parents who aren't working," said Spang. "That isn't always true. The parent may work for a very low wage, shift work, or might not be there to cook on the weekend." A great aspect of this program is that all food is kid-friendly. That means that all hearty items are in microwavable containers and things that kids like and want to eat.
"Call your school nurse and see what is needed," suggested Spang. Often the school nurse collects gently used clothing, person hygiene supplies and paper products. Spang does caution that storage space in schools is limited.
To support this program, the United Way raises funds through grants, individual donors, civic group, churches, local clubs and organizations.
As a way to raise additional funds to support the Buddy Backpack program, United Way hosts Flavor of the North. This year is the ninth annual Flavor of the North. It will take place April 19, starting at 5:30 p.m., at the Range Recreation Civic Center in Eveleth.