Backpack program prepares for possible growth of hunger

Members of the Vermillion School Board learned at its Monday night meeting that budget battles in Pierre may be the least of the worries facing some local students.

Some children literally may be feeling some belt-tightening at home right where it hurts – their stomachs.

There are hungry children in the Vermillion School District, even with the availability of free and reduced school meals served five days a week by the district's food service.

John Lushbough, one of the main organizers of The Welcome Table in Vermillion, is a driving force behind the Vermillion Weekend Backpack Food Program, designed to help stave off the hunger pangs that some children may experience on weekends when no school meals are available.

"Our mission is just that we want to make sure that kids have food over the weekend where they might not otherwise have it," Lushbough told the school board.

The program began two years ago after community members met with school officials, he said.

"We've been doing it weekly ever since," Lushbough said. "Most programs that are doing this do it during the academic year, and we do that also, but we also deliver bags (of food) to families that sign up for the program in the schools during the summer as well. We've been going every week since then (the end of the school year)."

When the program began locally in January 2009, 14 bags of food were delivered to children in the school district.

"There was an announcement sent home with all parents, where parents could sign up their kids for those who might want it," Lushbough said, "and we have now grown to 51. That was the number of bags sent to kids in the last delivery last May."

The need to supplement weekend food supplies for school children is not limited solely to the Vermillion School District.

"In addition to Sioux Falls, there are 12 other communities in South Dakota that are doing this same program," he said. "I went to a meeting in Brookings of these programs in March, and I was a little surprised by the numbers."

He noted that Milbank and Brookings, both in their first year of offering the weekend backpack program, are already delivering food bags to 102 and 252 children respectively.

Students of the local district received packets approximately two weeks ago as the new school year begins later this month. In those packets, with the school administration's permission, were consent forms that parents may fill out if they wish for their children to receive a supply of food at the end of each week for use over the weekend.

"We expect that the volume of this program may pick up a little bit," Lushbough said. "I'm not trying to grow it just because I want big numbers; I'm trying to grow it based on the need that's there."

He bases his prediction that the need for the weekend backpack program will likely grow on the number of children that will qualify to receive free or reduced-price school lunches from the district's food service.

"If I just look at that," Lushbough said, "where Austin (Elementary) is at 45 percent of the kids that are enrolled there qualify, and at Jolley its at 44 percent, middle school at 35 percent and high school at 32 percent  – if you just looked at those numbers, or if you just looked at the free lunches that people are eligible to receive, my extrapolation shows that we would be doing 150 bags here."

The Vermillion Weekend Backpack Food Program is part of The Welcome Table, he added, and receives all of its funding locally. It is not associated with the free and reduced cost lunch program operated through the school district.

"The Welcome Table is part of The United Way, so we get United Way funding," Lushbough said, "but we also get a tremendous amount of money from individuals."

Groups in the community also hold fundraising events to generate needed revenue for the program.

Each bag of food sent home with a child at the end of the school week costs about $3.75.

"The reason we are able to do it for $3.75 is we've really had good cooperation from the three grocery stores in town – Jones' and Hy-Vee and Walmart – all three of them have been extremely cooperative," Lushbough said.

He added that the school district is particularly helpful in making sure that students who need this service receive it.

"The schools really know where the need is, and the only thing I'm trying to do is to facilitate and raise money and get those bags delivered," Lushbough said.

People interested in more information about the weekend backpack food program may contact any of the district's school, or call Lushbough at (605) 624-4159. His e-mail address is jlushbough@gmail.com.

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