School breaks are tough for the thousands of families served by Feeding South Dakota. Already tight budgets get further squeezed when children are home and have no free or reduced-price school lunches to keep them nourished.
So long before schools closed their doors for Christmas break, Feeding South Dakota began packing food into bags that would slip easily into the backpacks of school children who otherwise might not have enough to eat during the holiday season. About 5,500 bags in all, each containing a selection of hearty soups, tuna and other sources of protein, breakfast foods, shelf-stable milk, nutritious snacks and a few kid favorites, such as mac and cheese. More than 3,600 bags were reserved for children in the Sioux Falls area, where nearly 50 percent of all school children live in households with incomes low enough to qualify for subsidized lunch.
In the past, Feeding South Dakota filled student backpacks with enough food to bridge nutrition gaps for the full two-week winter break. But the weight of the food bags proved too heavy for younger children, said Kerri DeGraff with Feeding South Dakota.
This season, Feeding South Dakota tried a new approach, one aimed at lightening the burden borne by children while still giving families access to much-needed food, Kerri said. Children were sent home with enough food for the first week of winter break. Families were invited to restock for the second week by visiting one of three locations in Sioux Falls -- the food bank, a pantry or a church.
When classes resume in January, Feeding South Dakota will return to its weekly routine of filling bags with a weekend’s worth of healthy entrees and snacks for educators to tuck into student backpacks. While the number of children served each week can fluctuate, the schools participating in the program this year are constant: 78 buildings statewide, with close to 50 of them in Sioux Falls, where Kerri works.
The program needs more than $700,000 annually to supplement the nutritional needs of South Dakota school children enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. FCSAmerica has provided financial support through a Working Here Fund grant. Kerri said Feeding South Dakota is fortunate to have many businesses, organizations and individuals that support the backpack program.
Feeding South Dakota and other backpack programs in the region can’t solve hunger. But, Kerri says, surveys of students and teachers show that the supplemental food does what it is intended to do: ease the hunger pangs to help children focus on learning.