As many families in Fillmore County depend on school-age children receiving a nutritious breakfast and lunch at school each day, a question was raised of how to help those children in families who could use some extra help to provide meals on weekends as well.
Kristy Tweeten, who is a dairy farmer, had experience with a backpack program in Winona County where food is sent home with children each Friday in backpacks.
After seeing how successful, and how needed, that program was she suggested a backpack program be started offering filled backpacks to students in the Rushford-Peterson school district.
“If we establish good eating habits as children we will keep those habits as we become adults,” states Tweeten.
Tweeten contacted a few people, asking for their support of the project, including Burton Svendsen, a retired R-P school teacher who took the program under his wing with support of many others, including superintendent of Rushford-Peterson schools Chuck Ehler.
“Chuck Ehler has been a supporter of the program from the start,” states Svendsen. “Our program in Rushford is a collaboration between the local churches and the Rushford-Peterson School District,” explains Svendsen.
As a dairy farmer and member of the American Dairy Association, Tweeten says she sees a need for milk and dairy products firsthand, and so she spoke with Brad Hoiness of Rushford Foods about finding a way to get these products in the hands of the children who need them.
Hoiness contacted the Kemps Company and Trinity Johnson, Chairman of the Fillmore County American Dairy Association board, who were happy to support the backpack project. Each child that takes home a backpack receives a coupon for a gallon of milk redeemable at Rushford Foods.
“Whatever we can do to get the product out to people,” states Johnson. Johnson describes the backpack program as a “great program” and feels it is important to get children started young enjoying dairy products. With generous donors and proceeds from the ADA Malt Wagon, the Fillmore County American Dairy Association has provided tremendous support to the program.
Rushford Foods, Kemps, and the Fillmore County American Dairy Association share the cost of providing the milk coupons in the backpacks each week.
“It was overwhelming to see how many people have helped,” stated Tweeten.
To provide confidentiality, the backpacks are numbered. Backpacks are signed out each Friday filled with food and are then returned empty each Monday to be filled again for the next Friday.
“The main purpose when we started the program was to get the kids something to eat over the weekend,” states Svendsen. The program has been going strong now for seven years, showing just how great the need was when the program began and how much it is still needed years later.
The backpacks are filled with at least four meals, including breakfast and lunch items. The food items in the backpacks vary from week to week but examples of common items placed in the backpacks are cereal, macaroni and cheese, pudding, mixed fruit, microwave meals, juice boxes, cookies, crackers and popcorn.
Some of the food items used in the backpacks each week are received from Channel One Food Bank of Rochester, Minn., which is a very important resource throughout Southeastern Minnesota.
Generous area residents also make monetary donations which are used to purchase additional items needed.
The number of backpacks taken out each week varies but normally no less than eight backpacks are taken home by students who may not have otherwise had hot or nutritious meals or may have had to skip a meal or two on weekends.
“People coming together make this program work,” states Svendsen. Local churches provide the volunteers to help load the backpacks each week. The churches rotate on a monthly basis filling the backpacks.
As the backpack program in Rushford has been helping many students fill the nutrition gap that may happen in households on weekends for several years, it seems to only make sense that other cities and schools in Fillmore County could use backpack programs of their own.
It only takes one — one person who recognizes the need for a backpack program in their community and starts enlisting volunteers — be that person. If your community has a backpack program, offer to donate, volunteer or support the program in some way.