Blessings in a Backpack: Hunger doesn’t take weekends off

Program in Abbotsford ensures kids don't go hungry on their days off from school.

Note: All names have been changed in the following story in order to protect the identities of the people involved.

Andrea called it her “perfect life with the perfect family.”

She lived in a five-bedroom home with a fenced backyard in a quiet residential cul-de-sac. She resided with her pre-teen daughter, young son and her fiance, Joseph.

Joseph, a personal trainer, was the family’s sole breadwinner, and this enabled Andrea to stay home and raise her kids.

There was always plenty of food in the cupboards, and the bills were always paid.

Andrea loved being a stay-at-home mom. It meant she could take part in her kids’ school functions and be there to greet them when they returned from school.

It all changed Oct. 3, 2011.

Andrea awoke to find Joseph not moving beside her. Despite his apparent excellent physical condition, he had died in his sleep from a heart attack – the result of an undiagnosed heart condition.

Andrea felt like her soul had been ripped out of her. Not only did she lose the love of her life, but the emotional security he provided.

Joseph had no life insurance nor were there any widow’s benefits available to Andrea. With no job to turn to, and too consumed with grief to look for one, Andrea could not afford the rent on their home.

She and her kids moved into her parents’ residence and, although she was grateful for their support, it was a difficult step to take. She felt like she was burdening them.

Andrea’s ex-husband was not providing child support, and her only immediate source of income was welfare.

Andrea was a woman of pride, strength and perseverance. It was humiliating for her to accept government support, but she did what she had to for her kids’ sake.

In December of that year, Andrea and her kids moved into a place of their own – a subsidized housing unit that charged $529 a month for rent. Her welfare cheque was less than $900 a month.

Trying to make the funds last the month was never easy. At times, Andrea couldn’t afford to buy groceries, but she got by with trips to the Abbotsford Food Bank or she would go to her mom’s for dinner.

She was also grateful for the assistance her kids received through their schools’ breakfast and lunch programs, which ran during the week.

But the weekends could be tough, and it’s when the hunger pangs would creep in. Sometimes, the family had only a loaf of bread to eat.

At the start of the 2012/13 school year, Andrea’s son – then in Grade 1 – came home from school with a backpack filled with food. The items included cereal, fruit, granola bars, canned items and boxed pasta.

There was also a letter, explaining a new program that was being offered and asking for Andrea’s permission for her son, Jordan, to participate.

The program was called “Blessings in a Backpack.” The idea was that participating kids would receive the food-filled backpacks every Friday so that they would have enough meals – two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners – to last them for the weekend.

They would return the empty backpacks early in the week, and they would be refilled for pick-up again that Friday.

Andrea was so moved at the offer that it brought tears to her eyes. She signed the form without hesitation.

Jordan was thrilled to receive his backpack each week. It was like opening a present to see what was inside. He especially liked the treats – such as granola bars, juice boxes and pudding cups – that were too expensive for his mom to buy.

Andrea found a job in June of this year, as a cook at a local institution. She misses her kids, but she feels empowered that she is the one who supports them and she no longer requires government assistance.

She makes almost double what she did on welfare, but the $13-an-hour job means she still struggles for the essentials.

Andrea often eats her meals at work, saving the food at home for her kids. The items from the backpack program help fill the gap over the weekends, ensuring her dollars can be stretched a little bit further.

She tears up when describing the difference it has made to her family.

“This backpack program is definitely a lifesaver. I really needed it. It really helps.”

She also hopes that her kids someday grasp the deeper message behind such forms of giving.

“I teach my kids that it doesn’t matter who you are, what colour you are, what size you are … We all need help and we need to be treated with dignity and respect.”

TWO SCHOOLS INVOLVED, PLANS FOR MORE

Abbotsford Food Bank executive director Dave Murray (photo below) was surprised when a teacher from a local school told him there were kids in her class who were going hungry on the weekends.

She wanted to know if there was anything he could do to help.

Murray was well aware of child-poverty issues in the city – the food bank serves some 1,200 kids each month – but he didn’t realize some children were not eating much, or at all, on the weekends.

“I was surprised. Still to this day, I’m surprised,” he said.

Many of these kids are supported through school breakfast and lunch programs during the week, but their families struggle to feed them during the days off from school.

Murray had read about a program in the U.S. that was providing food-filled backpacks to help fill that gap.

He discussed the idea with the principal at the school in question, and the Blessings in a Backpack program was launched in Abbotsford for the 2012/13 school year.

About 10 kids at the school – which is not being named, in order to protect the children’s privacy – received the backpacks during the pilot year.

The kids were identified by staff at the school, and a permission letter was sent home to parents.

The packs were filled each week at the food bank with six meals – two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners – to last the weekend.

The packs were dropped off at the school for the kids to take home each Friday. The empty packs were then  returned early in the week so they could be refilled.

The school’s principal said the program was a huge success in the first year.

“You could tell the parents were so grateful,” she said.

The kids were excited to see what items were in the backpack each week. They often included treats – such as granola bars and pudding cups – that their parents couldn’t afford.

Blessings in a Backpack has expanded for the 2013/14 school year, thanks primarily to support from the Rotary Club of Abbotsford.

The first participating school now has 30 kids receiving the backpacks, and a second school has been added, also with 30 children.

The Rotary Club has donated $22,000 towards the program, including the purchase of special backpacks with the program’s and Rotary International’s logos.

Bruce Beck, director of community service for the Rotary Club of Abbotsford, said the club felt moved to help.

“It was an emotional call to action for us … Abbotsford is the biggest, richest agricultural area in the country, and we have children in our city who are starving. That’s inexcusable. That’s intolerable,” he said.

Also on board this year is Northview Community Church, which has provided several volunteers who shop for the food each week, fill the backpacks, drop them off at the schools, and pick up the empty packs for refilling.

Beck said it costs $525 to provide the food in the backpacks to one child for the entire school year. The Rotary Club is challenging local businesses to sponsor one child – or more – by covering that funding. For more information on making a contribution to the program contact Abbotsford Rotary Club Director of Community Service Bruce Beck at bbb1771@shawbiz.ca.

To date, funds have been contributed by Canadian Western Bank, the employees of Quantum Properties, Manulife Securities, Farm Credit Canada, Thrifty Foods, Blackwood Home Hardware Building Centre, and Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes.

Any other businesses, groups or individuals wanting to contribute to the program can do so by calling the Abbotsford Food Bank at 604-859-5749  or visiting the site at 33914 Essendene Ave. Cheques can be made out to the Abbotsford Food Bank with “Blessings for Backpacks” on the notation line.

A PEEK INSIDE

Kids participating in the Blessings in a Backpack program each week receive a backpack filled with two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners for the weekend.

The items change from week to week, depending on the produce that is in season and the price of the goods. They must be non-perishable due to the lack of refrigeration from the time the backpacks are filled until they are delivered to the kids.

Here is the list of items that were including in the backpacks during one recent week:

– two apples

– one orange

– box of cereal

– package of instant oatmeal

– box of macaroni and cheese dinner

– box of creamy tuna pasta

– can of chicken noodle soup

– can of spaghetti

– can of Alfa-Getti

– can of tuna

– two granola bars

– package or Ritz crackers

– apple sauce cup

– pudding cup

– carton of apple juice

 

 

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