Amy Cunningham
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This fall a hand full of students in one of Gardner’s elementary schools are participating in BackSnack, a program the district adopted from Harvesters Community Food Network.  BackSnack seeks to ensure that children who qualify for free or reduced lunches won’t go hungry over the weekend by providing them with a backpack containing enough food for the child to eat over the course of the break.

“We know that many of these children don’t have enough food to eat on the weekend,” explained Ellen Feldhausen, Director of Communications at Harvesters.

According to Feldhausen, students who take part in the BackSnack program are selected by school staff members.  The entire process is kept confidential so those students are not identified to their classmates or other staff.

Feldhausen said that participating schools must apply and qualify for the program.  One of the variables Harvesters uses to evaluate a school’s need is the percentage of children who receive free and reduced lunches.

To assist in the process, the food bank creates an alliance between itself, local schools and a distribution partner, usually a local corporate, civic or religious organization.

“There are many people involved in making sure the backpacks are filled.  This is a partnership between Harvesters, the School and a community partner, in this case (the Gardner Church of the Nazarene). The partner organization provides a weekly backpack of nutritious, kid-friendly foods to the students in the program every Friday afternoon,” said Feldhausen. “The food kits are assembled by volunteers at the Harvesters’warehouse, the community partners pick up the backpacks from the school to refill them.  Then the backpacks are dropped off at the schools on Friday for the children to take home.”

Pastor Dan Newberg of the Gardner Church of the Nazarene believes his church was selected to become a distribution partner because of the church’s participation in another program, Angel Food Ministries.  Through Angel Food Ministries, any member of the community can order a bag of groceries, valued at $70.  Consumers pay a reduced price of only $30, and the food items are delivered once per month to be picked up at the church.

As a Harvesters distribution partner, the Gardner Church of the Nazarene also receives a once per month delivery from the Mobile Food Pantry.  Goods from this delivery are distributed on the first Monday of the month to community members.

“We don’t like to think about it here in Gardner, but we know there are kids who go home from school who don’t have enough food to eat,” said Newberg. “This is Johnson County and we think of affluence and money and you don’t like to think about people who are struggling.  It’s everywhere, even in some of the nicer neighborhoods people are struggling, trying to make ends meet….It doesn’t seem to bother us as much when it is happening far, far away but when its happening in our own back yard it is easier to do something about it.”

BackSnack was started in 2004 by Harvesters, a food bank whose reach extends to 16 counties in northeastern Kansas and 10 counties in northwestern Missouri. That first year the program served 30 students at one school, this year officials at Harvesters expect it to grow to 13,000 students network-wide each week.

A study conducted by the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership concluded that participation in the BackSnack program improves student grades, leads to fewer absences, fewer tardies, better health and increases the participants sense of responsibility and social skills. Schools also reported a fifty percent drop in discipline issues for students active in the BackSnack program.