Linden Backpacks

Tara McElfresh was picking her kids up from school one afternoon and noticed that a teacher was giving one of their classmates a package that looked like it was full of snacks. She noticed it again the next few days and, curious, asked the teacher why. “She told me that the child comes to her every day to ask for food and didn’t think she has a lot of food when she gets home until she comes back to school for breakfast.”

McElfresh thought, “If this child is hungry overnight, what is she doing over the weekend?”

That’s when she started researching organizations that would provide supplementary meals for children in need on weekends. She could not find one in her area. This was enough to mobilize McElfresh, who is one of the most active moms in Linden Elementary’s PTA.

McElfresh approached Victoria Davis, the school principal, who agreed that many children in their school needed this help. That was all McElfresh needed to start the Linden Backpack Initiative.

In January, McElfresh sent out forms to all the kids’ parents and 26 children opted into the program. Along with another mom, Christina Palsky, McElfresh funded the initial program and packed bags of food in the school’s utility room. Concerned that children might feel stigmatized if she singled them out,  they called the kids up one at a time to the school’s office while class was in session and asked them to bring their backpacks. “The only thing the other kids see is that they are being called up, which is fairly common. It was our first year and we all agreed that if this process needed to change, we would change it.”

Over 43,000 children in Allegheny County are food insecure – that is, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And according to 2013-2014 numbers, 71% of Linden students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Projects like Linden’s Backpack Initiative provides supplementary meals to their students but are needed by many more all over the county.

Davis values the support that the Backpack Initiative gives to the children. “I’m pleased about being able to provide students and families with resources and support that they are in need of. When families say there is a need, it’s always great when we can step up and provide support.”

With the new school year, McElfresh sent out new forms and so far has received 18 requests for support. Teachers can also refer a child. “There was a child whose parents are not around to sign the forms and the child shuttles from one place to another almost daily. The teacher signed for her and the child received weekend meals.”

McElfresh tries to pack the bags so a child goes home with two breakfasts, some snacks and two meals. Typical items include oatmeal, cereal bars, crackers, fruit cups, mac and cheese, tuna, and peanut butter. McElfresh wishes she can give more than nonperishable food. A parent volunteer donates some fresh fruit weekly so a child can at least have something fresh in their weekend package. To be able to provide food for the remaining months of school this past winter, McElfresh sought out donations from parents and local businesses. 40% of the food came from donations and McElfresh and Palsky funded the rest.

It costs about $6 to fill a kids’ backpack for the weekend. $250 would support a child for a whole school year. McElfresh has launched a fundraising campaign to fund this year’s initiative and is trying to raise $6,000, which will provide for 24 children’s weekend meals for the school year. So far they have raised $1170 and the campaign is ongoing.

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment....