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Monday, September 14, 2015

Backpack program helps reduce hunger in RSU14 - By Elizabeth Richards

A dedicated group of volunteers works with the School Nutrition and Wellness Coordinator, Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, to be sure that elementary school children in RSU14 who may be experiencing food insecurity don’t go hungry when school is not in session.
The backpack program sends food home each weekend and before school vacation with children who have been identified by school staff as potentially needing assistance. The process is confidential from start to finish, with teachers placing the bags inside backpacks while students are out of the room. Families must give their approval to receive bags of food in the backpacks.

Although the program is run through the school, Marge Govoni, who coordinates the program, said it’s not a school endeavor. “It’s not funded by the school budget,” she said. 

When the backpack program began in 2011, it was a joint effort between Hannaford and school personnel, and was funded in part by Hannaford. Hannaford had been sponsoring several backpack programs, and a few years ago consolidated these and turned over the operations to Good Shepherd Food Bank. RSU14 received funding from Good Shepherd for a year, but lost that funding because the free/reduced lunch percentage is not quite high enough in the district.

The free/reduced percentage rate of approximately 37 percent in RSU14 means that funding is harder to come by, said Cowens-Gasbarro. Though the district doesn’t qualify for help from the government or many grant guidelines, there are still hungry kids, she said. “It’s the kids who just don’t make the cut off, it’s the families who just make enough money to get by but are still really struggling, that this program is so beneficial for,” she added.

When the program began, they served 50 children. Now, said Cowens-Gasbarro, they have a budget to provide 150 bags. The program runs on volunteer labor, from the coordinator to those who pack the food. The cost of sponsoring a child for a full school year is approximately $200.

The program receives funding from community donations, including their major donor, Windham Weaponry, who offers an employee donation program. Other organizations have found creative ways to help, like Birchwood Day Nursery who had children run a “marathon” and raise money for the program. 

“There are so many different ways that you can help, different ways to fundraise rather than money out of your own pocket if you don’t have it,” said Cowens-Gasbarro.

The program also recently received a generous grant of $15,000 from the John T. Gorman Foundation. The hope is that with those funds and community donations, the program will continue to build and become more sustainable.

The backpack program can only accept monetary donations, not donations of food. Govoni said there are a few reasons for this, including the need to provide the same items in each bag, the weight of the bag, and the ease of packing for volunteers.

A survey is sent home at least once a year to solicit feedback from the families served. “It’s really great insight for us, and it helps because we like to give feedback to our major contributors,” said Govoni. 

Cowens-Gasbarro added, “We get some really great feedback from parents about how it’s helping their family. It’s very touching. Sometimes when you are in it you lose sight of that so it’s really nice to hear from the parents.”  

Though the backpack program serves all three elementary schools in the district, the need doesn’t stop there. A snack program, also community funded, provides snacks to children who don’t have them. 

The middle and high schools both have a “Village Fund” intended to help kids purchase lunch if they need it. At the middle school, this has been fully funded by Windham Weaponry. For the high school fund, donations are also needed. These programs are important because giving backpacks to kids that age just doesn’t work, said Cowens-Gasbarro.

Govoni said she can’t stress enough how important the backpack program is in the district. “It’s a very worthwhile program, and it’s a 100 percent totally appreciated program,” she said.

Cowens-Gasbarro said the program helps kids stay focused and learn better. “In some cases they rely on school meals. That’s what they eat. They don’t have any food at home.” This is why programs like the backpack program and summer meal sites are crucial. “We work on all that, trying to feed kids every which way we can,” she said. 

Individuals or organizations who want to donate to the backpack program, the snack program or the Village Fund can contact Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro at scowens-gasbarro@rsu14.org.

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