Food for kids

Back Packs for Kids volunteer Doug Dierenfield, center, helps West High students load boxes of food for needy children in Billings schools.

LARRY MAYER Gazette Staff

Four Billings West High School students and four adult volunteers work together every week at the Billings Public Schools warehouse. They pack easy-open, single-serving meals that keep elementary school students from going hungry on weekends. The Back Pack for Kids team efficiently boxes and labels food packages that the school district’s warehouse trucks will deliver to elementary schools all over town.

How many people does it take to feed needy elementary students?

  • Local churches, individuals and businesses donate money to purchase weekend food for kids. Sodexo, School District 2’s private food service contractor, provided a $1,000 grant.
  • Unpaid volunteers shop for and pack food.
  • School District 2 provides warehouse storage space and transportation.
  • The Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools serves as the fiscal agent, receiving and accounting for donations and expenditures.
  • Public school counselors, teachers, principals and secretaries look out for students who show signs of going without regular meals outside of school. Sue Runkel, the district’s homeless student liaison, helps, too.

“It’s a big team effort,” said Ginny Mermel, the unpaid volunteer who leads the program. “Our food service tells principals and counselors if a kid is begging for seconds, rushing the cafeteria line or scavenging leftovers.”

What’s in a weekend food pack?

Two healthy, whole grain cereals (such as Cheerios), shelf-stable milk, two vitamin C fortified fruit juices, two cups of fruit in natural juice, two nutrition bars and two entrees such as spaghetti and meatballs or chicken stew. All the food is in single-serving, easy-open containers and doesn’t require cooking.

“We have kids who live in motels and trailers without a way to cook it,” Mermel explained.

When Mermel, a PhD dietitian and school wellness coach with Montana State University, founded the Back Packs for Kids program in 2009, it was the first in Montana. Now there are 100.

Recently, 272 Billings students in K-5 were receiving weekly back pack meals. The number was higher last year when sixth-graders were in some elementary schools.

Mermel and school counselors work to make sure sixth-graders and older students don’t go hungry. Every Billings public high school and middle school has a pantry, or access to donated food, for needy students. Between 50 and 200 students use those pantries every week. More use the pantries later in the month when family Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits have run out.

The Back Pack meals are tucked discreetly into elementary students’ back packs while they are at recess. Other students don’t have to know that their classmates are getting food to take home.

“Kids will come in and feel the back pack so they know the food is in there,” Mermel said.

Middle school pantries

Counselor Tawnya Catron started a student pantry years ago because she saw the need at Castle Rock Middle School. Now working as one of two counselors for 660 students at Medicine Crow Middle School, Catron and her colleague still see students at risk for hunger at home.

There are families who have recently left homeless shelters, families without transportation and middle schoolers who have to prepare their own meals. Most receive free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches, but their nutrition is less secure on non-school days.

Rarely do Catron’s students use the pantry all month. The school pantry location isn’t publicized; counselors try to protect student privacy.

“The Billings community has been great,” Catron said. “Here at Medicine Crow, we have been truly blessed with donations.”

Among 16,700 students in Billings K-12 public schools, 6,130 are in the USDA free or reduced-price school meal program, according to Sodexo data. Many of those students’ families also receive monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to purchase groceries at local stores. But those government programs aren’t enough to keep all the kids in all the low-income families fed when wages don’t cover rent, fuel and other essentials.

Poverty is a complex problem. Billings volunteers, donors and educators have created an amazingly simple short-term solution to child hunger: Send good food home from school.

This is the point where the editorial usually would tell readers how to help the Back Packs for Kids program. But this community program doesn’t need more donations for the remainder of this school year, Mermel said.

“We have a nice reserve. Right now, I want us to spend down the reserve,” Mermel said, adding that the program shares resources with other community agencies and tries to avoid wasting food.

Instead of donating now to Back Packs for Kids, Mermel asked that readers support Family Service Inc. and Tumbleweed, two agencies that provide an array of services to help needy youth and families get back on their feet. For information about donating to those private, nonprofit organizations, please see the “how to help” box.