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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Backpack food program continues to grow

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Sales of the Seasonal and Simple cookbook is one way the Oregon County Extension Office raises additional money to keep expanding the weekend backpack program, which offers food for students who live in "food insecure" households. [Order this photo]
The Hungry Children of Oregon County, also known as the "Backpack Program," provides food for "food insecure" children from pre-school through fourth grade. Every Friday, individual servings of food are slipped into a child's backpack.

There are over 70 children in Oregon County that benefit from the program, with the nutritional, easy to prepare food insuring that the child has adequate food over the weekend.

The Backpack Program is organized through the University Of Missouri Extension Office of Oregon County. It is the result of a Healthy Lifestyle Initiative grant through the University of Missouri that Oregon County received in 2010. Sarah Kenyon, of the Oregon County Extension, said that the mission of the grant is to promote healthy eating and physical activity to create healthier communities across Missouri.

"When the grant was awarded we formed a committee of community members to discuss the needs in Oregon County, and help to determine how to spend the grant money, Kenyon said. "After the action committee was formed, we developed a mission statement: We will empower families in Oregon County to make life-long healthy choices. Through education we will encourage budgeting, nutritional choices, physical activity, and positive self-esteem to create a better quality of life."

After the committee developed its mission statement, it sent out surveys to determine what the needs of Oregon County citizens were. The survey addressed physical activity, food choices, and health concerns for both children and adults. There were many areas that could be focused on, but it was the decision of the committee to focus on childhood hunger issues -- thus developing the backpack program.

Being discrete about which children receive the weekly backpacks is a main goal of the program. The children and parents that receive the backpacks are unknown with the exception of school nurses. Kenyon said, "To do this, school nurses work with the teachers to identify children that may benefit from the backpack program, then a permission slip is sent home to the parent and, once returned, the child will start receiving backpacks."

The nurse works with the parent and child to determine if there are any food allergies, and lets the program know how many backpacks are needed. On Fridays, the nurse discretely puts the backpack into the child's school bag to take home.

"All of the feedback from the nurses has been positive. The children greatly appreciate the food that they receive and look forward to taking the food home," Kenyon said.

Oregon County residents have shown a tremendous amount of support for the program. Organizations, companies and individuals contribute to the Backpack program. At the end of the month, when it is time to gather and organize the food, local youth groups help put the food into sacks. Donations can be made at the Oregon County Health Department or Extension Office. Food donations are welcome with canned ravioli, peanut butter crackers, and oatmeal are the most needed items. Monetary donations are also welcome. You can sponsor a child for $24 a month or $240 for the 10 month school year. If anyone is interested in participating in quarterly meetings, please contact the Extension Office.

Kenyon said that, because of the public's support, funding has always been available to meet the needs of the program. Continued funding is always needed, however, in order to keep serving the children and to eventually serve more in the future. The main struggle for the program is getting the food to the nurses. "Although getting the food out timely is sometimes stressful, especially with some schools letting out early for holidays, we have never missed a distribution," Kenyon said.

This year the program was extended to include preschool and Head Start students. Some of these groups get out of school on Thursday rather than Friday, and there were concerns that the young children were too small to carry the weight of the food.

The solution is to hand backpacks directly to parents, since the kids must be escorted by them.

Future plans for the Backpack program include making it available to children in grades all the way up to sixth grade. "We have been fortunate to expand the backpack program each year to include more grades," Kenyon said.

Other goals of the Oregon County Healthy Lifestyle Initiative, unrelated to the backpack program, include hosting a walk/run, a community health fair and having more community gardens.

In addition to the Backpack program, the Oregon County Healthy Lifestyle initiative helped purchase portable kitchens that can be used for healthy cooking demonstrations, worked with local community gardens and purchased cookbooks that feature recipes from the garden. The $5 cookbook has more than 100 pages of recipes using simple preparations and seasonings. Proceeds collected from the cookbook support the Backpack program. Cookbooks can be purchased at the University of Missouri Extension Office in the basement of the Oregon County Courthouse. If you would like to find out more about the Backpack program or ways to help, call (417) 778-7490.

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