Blessings in a Backpack now serving 60 in Culver area

Volunteers (from left) Denise Burnham, Dianne Johnson, and Tracy Fox pack bags last week at Culver Bible Church for Culver Elementary students in the Blessings in a Packpack program., which provides food for needy youngsters for weekend nourishment.
By: 
Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

Over 60 percent of Culver Community Schools' district students are low enough to qualify for free and reduced lunches, and concerns as to whether all of those students receive nourishing meals during their weekends at home led to an initiative to form a local branch of the national Blessings in a Backpack program (as discussed in the pages of The Culver Citizen late last year). Culver's Dianne Johnson, one of the coordinators of the Culver Blessings program, is happy to report that the program not only saw its start here, but is currently going strong, though ongoing donations will be needed to keep it that way.

The Louisville, Kentucky-based Blessings, a not-for-profit organization, aims to see that the neediest children in communities across the country receive a bag or backpack every Friday with easy-to-prepare food to help them get through the weekend. In addition to Culver, Blessings also serves elementary school children in Plymouth, where the program started in this area, Argos, Triton, Bremen, and Walkerton.

While area schools are able to provide low income students with free or reduced priced breakfasts and lunches, which allows them to receive at least two nutritious meals per day, weekends have been shown, in the cases of many disadvantaged youth around the state and country, to be periods of either poor nutrition or low nutrition for many youngsters.

Culver's program is led by Dianne Johnson, Tracy Fox, and Stephanie Hall. Johnson started the program as part of her requisite service project with the Leadership Marshall County program (both Johnson and Hall participate in that program).

Tracy Fox is a Registered Dietitian and having moved to Culver from Washington, DC last year (Fox's husband, Don, is director of Summer Schools and Camps at Culver Academies) wanted to help and offered to add her expertise to enhance the food offerings as part of the program. Johnson, Hall and Fox work together to create menus that strike a balance between affordability (the program allows only about $2.20 per child per weekend and that has to cover two breakfasts, two lunches and two snacks) and health – not an easy task given the limited budget and the increased cost of some healthier foods.

The three form the core of a rotating group of volunteers who meet a few times a month at the Culver Bible Church -- which offers space for packing and storage of the food items for the backpacks -- and not only fill the packs themselves, but place them in donated plastic tubs which are picked up each week by Mike Elliott, PE instructor at Culver Elementary, for delivery to the school.

Johnson points out the bags are anonymously placed into the lockers of what has grown into 60 (rather than the initially projected 50) CES students identified by the school social worker and staff as benefiting the most from the program. Blessings in Culver costs $80 per child, adds Johnson, which covers all weekends during the traditional 38 week school year. All money donated stays in Culver, for Culver Elementary students’ benefit. There is no administration fee. Given the limited budget, additional monetary and healthy food donations are critical to the success and sustainability of the program.

Besides donating funds, Johnson encourages interested individuals or groups to consider donating actual food items as well. She notes that at least 60 of the same items are needed, since that is how many bags go home each week. Among items needed are:

-Fruit cups. These usually come in packs of four so 15 packs are needed; please make sure they are packed in either lite syrup or natural juice.
-Packages of oatmeal. Usually they come in boxes with 8 to 10 each so 6 to 8 boxes would be needed (kids seems to like the maple brown sugar variety the best).
-Lowfat or nonfat white milk. The type that comes in boxes and is shelf-stable (no refrigeration required).
-Soups. Cans – usually 15 ounces – that just need to be mixed with water are needed. Strive for varieties that have less than 480 milligrams of sodium.
-For those shopping at Sams Club or Costco, small packages of peanut butter are ideal, as are larger packages of oatmeal, granola bars, small packages of single-serve fruit cups and pudding, individual microwave popcorns, and possibly even cans of soup, kid-friendly ravioli, pork and beans, single serve cereal, or just about anything else single-serve and healthy.

Please do not donate Ramen noodles (though cheap, they're very poor in nutrition), candy, sugary drinks including juice drinks, snack cakes like Twinkies, fruit snacks and roll ups (like Welches, General Mills, etc. as they are mainly sugar and no fruit), potato chips, or other “junk food.” Those with questions about appropriate and healthy food items may feel free to snap a photo of the nutrition label and email or text Tracy Fox at tracy@foodnutritionpolicy.com or 301-­922-­3570.

And, as volunteers shared recently with members of Culver's Lions Club, those wishing to make or donate small cards or child-friendly paper games, to put in the weekly donations, "to let the kids know someone is thinking of them," are encouraged to do so.

Making a financial donation is easy and may be done online (blessingsinabackpack.org/donate), by postal mail directly to the national headquarters (Blessings in a Backpack Lock Box, PO Box 950291, Louisville KY 40295), or send donations to Dianne Johnson, 306 N Ohio St, Culver IN 46511 (captdianne@att.net or cell 812-699-1099). Donations are tax deductible, and you will receive a donation receipt directly from Blessings in a Backpack. Please make your check payable to Blessings in a Backpack, and write Culver Elementary School in the memo line. Be sure and designate Culver IN elementary in the comments section of the online donations. Undesignated funds go to the general fund.

Those interested may also help volunteers pack bags. There is no set schedule at this time so those who wish to help out should contact Johnson.

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