by Michelle A.L. Singer
What does a bagful of instant oatmeal, tuna fish, peanut butter, orange juice, milk, tomato soup, breakfast bars, beef stew, corn, mac and cheese, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a bar of soap mean to you? If you are one of the 1-in-5 kids in America, including in Vermont, who live in homes that are food insecure, it’s a lifeline. That’s what Robert Lehmert, a Montpelier Rotarian and facilitator of the backpack program at Union Elementary School, calls it.
People coordinating the backpack program send a bag of food home every Friday in the backpacks of almost 40 Union Elementary students. The Vermont Foodbank runs backpack projects in other central Vermont schools, but Union Elementary doesn’t qualify because only 30 percent of kids there receive free or reduced lunches, and the cut-off is 50 percent.
“We knew there was a problem,” says Lehmert. “Some of my fellow Rotarians had personal experiences as hungry school kids.” When he joined the Montpelier Rotary Club last April, he knew he was joining a service organization but didn’t know he would be on the front line of the biggest project the Rotary has ever done. “Our backpack project with Union Elementary School is a new project, first undertaken in January,” he says. “It represents our largest donation, and we committed the rest of our budget to fund it to the end of the school year and as long as we can after that.” They have also received private donations and grants from VSECU and Community National Bank.
The Rotary has worked closely with the Vermont Foodbank, getting inspiration and logistical guidance, and coordinates closely with Just Basics Inc. in Montpelier to pull the program together. Diadel K. Ortiz, program director of Community Connections and backpack coordinator at Union Elementary, provides the final link in the chain, connecting the program to the school. Students who can benefit from the program are identified by Ortiz, teachers and staff. Bags are placed in students backpacks or cubbies on Fridays by teachers when the students are at recess or another convenient time when the classroom is empty. “The idea is to be subtle, low-key,” says Lehmert, “to avoid stigma.”
Ortiz makes sure kids receive bags and take them home, and coordinates some customization for allergies and absences. He says, “When we started the backpack program in January, we had 17 students participating; now we have 38. We are seeing a need for this program here at Montpelier schools. Times are hard for many families, and this program helps them in many ways. Childhood hunger remains a serious issue for public schools. It’s not just happening in big cities and countries around the world, it is happening in our own backyard. I see some students regularly coming to school hungry because they are not getting enough to eat at home. Students are coming to school hungry two or more times each week. Most students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. And a majority of educators, who see hunger as a problem, find that food insecurity harms children’s health and development.”
Hunger Free Vermont defines food insecurity as the lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources. According to the 2010-2012 US Census, 13 percent of all Vermont households are food insecure, and more than 25,000 children under 18 live in food insecure households. That’s 32 percent of Vermonters who cannot afford either enough food or enough nutritious food.
“We are seeing a number of parents working two or three jobs to make ends meet, paying bills, and not having enough money left to purchase food,” continues Ortiz. “This has become the norm in our society. We see parents losing their jobs and are struggling to find work; we see others having a sudden illness or death in the family. All of these situations can cause food hardship. No matter what the situation is, hunger affects all walks of life. Many parents are grateful for the backpack program. As one parent said, ‘There are people who care about us, by providing free food for our kids.’ For this reason alone, I feel the backpack program is helping lots of students in need. We are making sure that children are being fed, living longer and growing strong which will ultimately help children develop healthy habits for success.”
Lehmert uses an iPhone app called Fooducate to check nutritional value of food he purchases for the program. He holds up an item code, and the app finds the product and gives an analysis of its nutritional content. He makes sure the products are not excessively salty, sugary or contain too many fats, and if necessary spends more to provide better products.
Dave Rubel, past president and board member of the Montpelier Rotary Club and commercial loan portfolio manager at Community National Bank, says, “The Backpack Program is a perfect example of an idea that someone had that just needed an organization to get behind it and support it. When people want to do something for the community but don’t know how, the Rotary can help.” Rubel was on hand to pack food bags in the basement of Trinity Church where Just Basics is located where he said, “It feels good to know that we are helping the community and that kids are going home with food in their backpack to get them through the weekend.”
You can help them by making food donations to Just Basics Inc. located in the basement of Trinity Church at 137 Main St. in Montpelier. You can also buy a ticket to the Rotary’s Mud Season Charity Raffle. A ticket at $100 buys entrance for two to a cocktails and hors d’oeuvres evening (over 21 years old only) on May 1 at Central Vermont Memorial Civic Center on Gallison Hill Road. Raffle prizes include ten $100 cash prizes, one $1,000 cash prize, one $2000 cash prize, and a grand prize of $10,000. Contact RobLehmert@mac.com for additional information or to reserve tickets.
Lehmert anticipates continuing the Backpack Program indefinitely, with support. He is looking to meet the challenge of spring break, when students may need an extra bag to cover vacation and perhaps to expand the program into the summer as well. “It’s such a basic need, everything flows from being challenged physically on that level,” says Lehmert. “How can you grow in your potential if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from?