BY SARA SHEIKH
In 2015, approximately 38 percent of Monroe County Community School Corporation (MCCSC) students qualified for free or reduced-cost school meals. While discounting school meals helps alleviate hunger during the week, many families still struggle to put food on the table over the weekend. Since 2005, Community Kitchen of Monroe County has been meeting that need by sending food home with students through the Backpack Buddies program.
Vicki Pierce, Community Kitchen executive director, says the program got its start when a former board member suggested the nonprofit organization start Backpack Buddies after reading about a similar outreach program in Arizona. The Monroe County program was the first of its kind in the region.
Community Kitchen has addressed food scarcity in the community since 1983, and maintains its mission to eliminate hunger through advocacy, education, and service. At its main location at 1515 S. Rogers St. and its satellite location, Community Kitchen Express, 1100 W. 11th St., the organization serves more than 2,200 meals per week.
In 2005, its first year, Backpack Buddies supported nearly 30 families with students at Fairview Elementary. Ten years later, the program had expanded to 350 students at both MCCSC and Richland-Bean Blossom Community Schools, including Fairview, Arlington, Summit, Clear Creek, Grandview, Highland Park, Templeton, Edgewood Primary, and Edgewood Intermediate.
Students in the program whose families need food are identified by school social workers. Community Kitchen staff and volunteers package approximately eight pounds of food into backpacks before delivering them to schools on Thursday afternoons.
One problem has been that many backpacks aren’t returned, increasing the cost of the program. “There is also the cost of washing and drying the backpacks, replacing them, and just keeping track of them,” Pierce says.
In an effort to be more cost effective, Community Kitchen began transitioning from actual backpacks to biodegradable plastic bags during the 2015–16 school year.
“The bags we’re transitioning into mean fewer kids are forgetting to return backpacks, resulting in us delivering more food to those who need it,” says Pierce. “We distribute roughly one ton of food each week through Backpack Buddies.”
For more information, visit monroecommunitykitchen.com or call 812-332-0999.