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Organizations working together to feed families and maintain kids' health

Michelle Gregersen, left, instructs youth on how to make a solar oven out of a pizza box. The activity is another part of the HAWK program that brings 4-H curriculum to children in their own neighborhoods every Thursday throughout the summer. Tribune photo by Jasmine Maki

Among high stacks of boxes, four 10-year-old girls laugh and sing while fil-ling backpacks with food Wednesday morning at the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

"I pack rice and mac and cheese," Emily Morris said.

"And I pack Girl Scout cookies and tomato sauce," Julia Thoden added.

As part of the Willmar Community Education and Recreation summer program He-althy Active Willmar Kids, the girls play an important role in feeding families in need.

But, HAWK isn't alone; many organizations work together to deliver food to families to maintain kids' health throughout the summer.

"There's five different programs," said Christie Kurth, executive director of the Willmar Area Food Shelf. "We're all on limited budgets, but we're trying to work together to make a difference."

Together, the five programs deliver about 100 backpacks each filled with about 10 pounds of food to families in need.

United Way's Empower group, a women's leadership initiative established to prepare children for kindergarten, plays a major role in the funding of the project. The group provides an estimated $900 for the backpacks and about $5,000 for the food.

United Way also funds the Growmobile, an RV that travels to trailer parks and other locations in and around Willmar bringing summer learning to children in their own neighborhoods. While bringing books to children, the Growmobile also delivers the backpacks full of food -- and a new book -- every Friday.

"It's taken us a while to figure out at what locations we'll reach the most kids, but we're just looking for concentrations of kids," said Tammy Rudningen, coordinator of youth enrichment and development for Willmar Community Education and Recreation.

They go to these locations because there are children there and there's a need, but anyone can come, Kurth added.

The backpacks are intended to supplement weekend groceries for low-income families. They contain a variety of food to feed a family of three or four during the weekend.

"We look at providing one breakfast, two lunches, one supper and a snack and something fun like Gatorade," Kurth said.

After the weekend, the children are responsible for bringing the backpacks back on Monday or Tuesday, so they can be refilled by HAWK each Wednesday morning.

The total number of backpacks has increased from about 87 last year to about 125 this year, said Renee Nolting, executive director of United Way of West Central Minnesota.

Michelle Gregersen, director of HAWK, said the number of backpacks they fill each week can vary from 70 to 120, something she attributes to the weather.

"It's not the same 75 to 85 kids each week, though" she said.

Gregersen and the girls of HAWK spend about 90 minutes filling the backpacks every week, but they also go to the trailer parks and interact with the kids.

"Essentially we just play with the kids," Gregersen said.

The HAWK group also uses 4-H curriculum to do special science activities such as geocaching and making solar ovens every Thursday.

With the backpack program and park activities, the combined goal of HAWK and the Growmobile is to keep kids healthy and active throughout the summer, while they continue to read and learn.

"It's a combined effort for getting kids ready for school," Rudningen said.