A kid toting a backpack is an icon for back-to-school time. But in at least 18 area school districts, the backpack some students haul home on Friday totes more than books. It's a lifeline for hungry kids.
The backpacks from the Northern Illinois Food Bank contain enough shelf-stable, nonperishable food to feed three children for two days. It's part of a national program the NIFB has participated in since 2008.
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According to NIFB communications director Donna Lake, one in five children in the agency's territory faces real hunger.
"It's our neighbors many times. We don't realize all," she said.
And hunger diminishes the kids' ability to learn.
"It was noticed by teachers," she said.
On Mondays, the children were unfocused and hungry. They had difficulty concentrating and learning. In the program, school administrators identify which children should get the backpacks, and notify the parents. Volunteers pack the packs at the NIFB centers, and NIFB drivers deliver them to schools. The kids return the backpacks on Mondays.
In fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30, the Backpack Program was used at 133 schools in 11 counties. This year's participants include West Chicago District 33; Lombard Districts 44 and 45; Woodridge District 68; Elgin Area District U-46; St. Charles District 303; East Aurora District 131; Lake County Districts 6, 34, 36, 41 and 60; District 187 in Woodstock; Valley View District U-365 in Bolingbrook; Plainfield District 202; and Joliet District 86.
The backpacks are deliberately nondescript, so as to not draw attention. They typically contain easy-to-prepare items such as pasta, rice, macaroni and cheese mix, peanut butter, milk, canned tuna, canned chicken and canned vegetables.
Lake acknowledges that people might say if a parent isn't feeding their children adequately, shouldn't the parent be reported to authorities and the children be removed from the home.
Lake said in many cases, the parents are trying to feed their kids while facing hard choices on how to spend their money.
"We're seeing a number of folks who are working," sometimes at a couple of jobs, but still have financial trouble, she said. Or the parents may be catching up on bills, such as a woman Lake met who was unemployed for a year and is trying to pay utility bills so services aren't cut off. And some working people may not be able to get to a food pantry, Lake said, because of their work schedules.
"At least over the weekend we know" the kids will have something to eat, Lake said.