28 February 2013

Originally published at: http://heraldargus.com/articles/2013/02/27/news/local/doc512d699986298088436159.txt

It started with the story of a young student eating a paper towel in the school bathroom.

She ate it to stop hunger pains, and to save her lunches for the weekend.

The story was told to Linda Neess, food pantry coordinator for the La Porte Salvation Army, by her daughter, a teacher at the Indianapolis school where the incident reportedly occurred.

Seeing hundreds of people coming into the La Pore Salvation Army for food on a weekly basis (more than 1,800 a month), Neess decided to share the story with her co-workers, and together they decided to do something in La Porte to prevent anything like this from happening here.

On March 7, the La Porte Salvation Army will begin its Backpacks for Kids program, a new initiative to provide disadvantaged children with meals on the weekend, so their food needs are met all week long.

"There is a hunger in La Porte." said Greg Irwin, corps administrator. "We see it in our food pantry and we see it in how many people we service every month."

His wife, Bethany, also a corps administrator at the Salvation Army, said the program is being piloted at Lincoln Elementary this year because it has a large percentage of students on free and reduced lunches.

As Bethany explained it, the elementary schools can provide their children with breakfasts and lunches during the week, but kids are left to their own devices on the weekend. This is where her group comes in. The Salvation Army can cover their weekend meals (three full meals a day with snacks) throughout the year.

And with help from the Food Bank of Northern Indiana, the program costs the Salvation Army only $3.50 per student per week. Fifty students are expected to benefit when the program starts up next week. Start up money for the program is being provided by the United Way of La Porte County.

The food will be distributed to children in their backpacks before each weekend, so the donation is inconspicuous to their peers.

"And the packages are kid friendly," Bethany said, "so children will not have to cook the food."

Packages will contain such items as fruit, cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and macaroni and cheese.

By the start of the next school year, the Salvation Army hopes to extend the program to three elementary schools in La Porte (Lincoln, Hailmann and Handley) and to the special education students at La Porte High School. More than 250 children are expected to benefit.

But organizers hope to do something more: increase parent involvement in their students' lives.

"If it accomplishes nothing more than feeding hungry kids on the weekend, then it would have served its goal," Greg said. "But, honestly, we are trying to help parents become more engaged in the process and solution. So if they want to come help pack the food in the backpacks, or become more involved in the school system, that's great."

Program participants will be selected by their school. Before starting the program, they will be asked to fill out a survey on the foods they like and do not like.

"Because if they don't like it," Bethany said, "there's no reason to give it to them. They are not going to eat it."

But while organizers have enough money from United Way to get the program off the ground, they are going to need more funds to keep it going and keep it expanding.

Bethany said volunteers are looking for monetary donations now.

"It's so much easier for us if we can buy supplies from the food bank," she said. "Then we know it's something the kids can handle themselves. It just comes ready to pass on to them."

"The real blessing is we have the financial backing to get it off the ground and get it going," Greg said. "All the agencies working together —the school system, United Way of La Porte County, Salvation Army, the Food Bank of Northern Indiana — is a real testament to what collaboration can accomplish."

For more information, or to donate to the program, call the La Porte Salvation Army at (219) 326-5342, or visit it online at salaporte.org.

Donations can also be made at the organization's headquarters at 3240 Monroe Ave. in La Porte. Donors are asked to specify the backpack program on their checks.