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Stopping hunger, 1 backpack at a time

Press Photo by Katherine Grandstrand Above, Jan Ostdahl hands Kristin Seaks, left, a box of food for the BackPack Program outside of St. John Lutheran Church on Wednesday. The packs of food will be distributed to students in need today at Dickinson Public Schools.1 / 2
An unpacked “BackPack” is shown here Wednesday at St. John Lutheran Church in Dickinson. The food is all room-temperature, non-perishable and can be prepared with no more special equipment than a microwave and possibly a can opener.2 / 2

Dickinson Public School students who have been going without much food on the weekends will be receiving the first shipment of food packs today from the Dickinson BackPack Program.

0 Talk about it

A little more than 100 students signed up for the program started by a group of concerned school officials and augmented by concerned citizens. Those running it expect more students to return to school with signed permission slips as word gets out about the program.

“As we get more contributions next month, we could order more if we have more donations coming and if the student numbers warrant it,” said Kristin Seaks, the school social worker leading the Dickinson BackPack Program.

All Dickinson Public Schools have voiced an interest in being a part of the program, Seaks said. Head Start also plans to join, but will not be part of today’s distribution.

Volunteers unloaded a month’s worth of food packs into the basement of St. John Lutheran Church on Wednesday. The packs are pre-made by the Fargo-based Great Plains Food Bank and used at several districts throughout the state. They contain easy-to-make and ready-to-eat food that requires no more special equipment than a microwave and possibly a can opener. Even the dairy products are specially packaged so they don’t need to be refrigerated.

The packs come in plastic grocery bags and contain enough food for a few meals and snacks to get children through the weekend. The same amount of food is in each pack regardless of the age of the child receiving it.

“It’s kind of to supplement what maybe they already have,” said Karen Thompson, one of the volunteers unloading Wednesday’s truck. “Hopefully they have something.”

Volunteers will drop off the allotted number of packs to each school this morning and school officials are in charge of discreetly delivering it to the students, Seaks said. Despite being called the BackPack Program, the food is not in actual backpacks.

“I really like the idea of picking up a bag versus a backpack,” Thompson said, adding she believes it will help deter bullying of students who receive the food. “I thought boy, if we had 20 blue backpacks, ‘Oh, you’re the backpack brigade,’ I know how that happens.”

The volunteers unpacking the shipment and dropping off food at schools will not have contact with the students receiving the food, said Glen Bruhschwein, the St. John’s representative in the volunteer group.

While Seaks has a list of students in the program, they’re broken down by school and the office staff at each school is responsible for getting the packs to the students.

The packs bundled in Fargo cost a little more than $4 each, Seaks said. Wednesday’s shipment — 128 weekly packs for four weeks — cost a little less than $2,200.

“We did a quick rundown on this — about a year’s was going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $25,000, depending on the need,” Bruhschwein said.

Some of the food may be perceived as types of “junk food.” Though it is also food that is easy for children to cook.

“Frankly, it looks kind of junky to me,” Bruhschwein said. “But, of course, it has to be easy to make with really no supervision.”

For the first few months, the packs will be the pre-made packs. But once the volunteers get the hang of distribution, they hope to make their own packs with donated food and food from Great Plains Food Bank and the Amen Food Pantry, Seaks said. In an effort to make it more nutritious, they do hope to supplement the packs with fresh fruit like apples and bananas.

“Down the road we might be able to get where we know what’s in those so we could ask for donations of those kinds of things,” Thompson said.

Great Plains Food Bank allows local BackPack Programs to order unpackaged food for less than the packs created in Fargo, Bruhschwein said. The long-term goal is to package the food themselves.

On long weekends, the group plans to add donated nonperishables similar to what’s in the two-day Great Plains pack to make up for the additional days students are without school lunch.

The volunteer group is courting corporate sponsors, especially oil field companies.

The Dickinson BackPack Program is being run under the 501(c)3 nonprofit designation of St. John Lutheran Church, which is also serving as the delivery point for Great Plains Food Bank.

The BackPack Program is in need of monetary donations and volunteers.

“I think whatever they’re willing to give, I think we would accept,” Seaks said.

Lend a hand

To donate to the Dickinson BackPack Program, send a check or money order to:

St. John ELC/Back Pack Program

146 Sixth Ave. W.

Dickinson, ND 58601

To volunteer, call Kristin Seaks at 701-590-0134

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
(701) 456-1206