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Extra nutrition for the weekend: Backpack food program launched at New London-Spicer

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Erica Dischino / Tribune Chasity Ommodt, director of client services and community engagement at The Link, fills a bag with food Nov. 30 at New London-Spicer High School. The bags are distributed on Fridays to students who are in need of extra food for the weekend. The Link partnered with local donors to begin the Wildcat Backpack Program this fall at NLS.2 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune Mary Sharpe, a paraprofessional educator at New London-Spicer High School, unpacks fruit cups that will be put in bags for students as part of the Wildcat Backpack Program. The food is distributed to students on Fridays to provide a little extra nutrition for the weekend.3 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune New London-Spicer student Ryan Wentzel puts a soup cup in a bag Nov. 30 as students in a job skills class prepare the weekly food bags for the Wildcat Backpack Program. About 60 students each week receive the bags of snacks and simple meals to take home in their backpacks for the weekend. 4 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune Volunteers from The Link, teachers and students from New London-Spicer High School bag food for students Nov. 30 as part of the Wildcat Backpack Program. The Link partnered with local donors to launch the backpack food program, providing extra food for the weekend to about 60 students each week.5 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune New London-Spicer student Connor Selander, left, wheels bags filled with food for students to take home in their backpacks for the weekend. He and other students of special education teacher Jaime Lindahl pack the food each week, both as a form of volunteering but also to learn work skills for the future. 6 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune Students Connor Selander, from left, Michael Shimeck and Ryan Wentzel deliver bags filled with food to the main office Nov. 30 at New London-Spicer High School. Teachers discreetly distribute the bags each week to students who have signed up to receive the extra food for the weekend. 7 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune Volunteer Kristina Reuss places bags full of food in a pile Nov. 30 for the Wildcat Backpack Program at New London-Spicer High School. The parents or guardians of students can sign up for the program to receive additional food support on the weekends. 8 / 8

NEW LONDON — When kids come to school hungry on Monday morning, it's hard for them to learn.

That's why churches, community organizations, businesses and volunteers are taking action to make sure kids in their west central Minnesota school districts have a little extra to eat on weekends.

Every Friday, hundreds of kids in area school districts receive bags of snacks and simple microwave meals to take home in their backpacks for the weekend.

The bags typically include cup-a-soup or instant pasta meals, cereal bars, fruit snacks and juice.

For school districts with a four-day school week, there's enough for a three-day weekend for the student.

During holiday breaks, the bags are bigger.

"People have been very thankful," said Chasity Ommodt, from The Link, a faith-based community organization in New London and Spicer.

Ommodt said she knew there was a need to feed children in the New London-Spicer School District and kept the problem and possible solution "close to my heart" while plans solidified for The Link to partner with local donors to begin a backpack food program this fall at NLS.

Now, about 60 plastic bags are filled every week in a classroom in assembly-line fashion by special education students enrolled in a job skills class.

Once the bags are filled, tied with a knot, placed in totes and delivered to classrooms, teachers discreetly distribute the bags to students — or put them in student lockers — before school ends on Friday.

The food isn't meant to feed a family but to give a student some extra nutrition and snacks for the weekend, when access to food at home may be slim.

There are no income requirements to qualify for the Wildcat Backpack Program and there is "no shame" to sign up to receive the bags, Ommodt said.

"If you're saying your kid needs food on a weekend, by golly, you'll get food," said Ommodt, adding that the community rallied behind the program, which is funded through donations.

When people hear that kids are "struggling to focus because they're hungry," they "dig a little deeper" to donate and volunteer for the program, she said.

Before launching the program at NLS, Ommodt talked with organizers in neighboring school districts that have been providing weekend backpack food programs for several years, including Brooten-Belgrade-Elrosa and MACCRAY Schools in Clara City, Maynard and Raymond.

Last year at MACCRAY, 72 students received bags of food each week, said Joyce Graue, who is a pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Raymond and a key organizer for the program there.

This year the number jumped to 122 students.

Graue said she's not sure why the numbers increased so much in one year at MACCRAY.

"Obviously, there seems to be a need here or we wouldn't have the numbers we have," she said. "It's helpful to families."

Donations and volunteers from area churches, the Lions Club and Kay's Naturals — a Clara City company that makes snack foods — and storage space at the school in Maynard helps the program run smoothly, Graue said.

Efforts are underway to collect enough peanut butter to put a jar in each bag before the Christmas break at MACCRAY.

Being able to purchase food through the Second Harvest Heartland food bank helps stretch donated dollars, but Graue said continued support is needed to sustain the program into the future.

The Backpack Attack program has been active in the BBE School District since 2014.

Josie Dingmann, BBE community education director, said about 50 students receive the bags each week, thanks to a group of people who "wanted to give back to our community and saw a need for weekend meals."

Volunteers from the local food shelf, churches, businesses and the school district work together to make the program happen, she said.

Four students give up their recess time to pack the bags, Dingmann said.

The same group of kids — two from the fifth grade and two from the sixth grade — have dedicated themselves to volunteering for the project for the entire year, she said.

When the program started at BBE, food was put in drawstring backpacks that students took home and returned each week.

But the backpacks were noticeable and drew attention to kids receiving the food, which defeated the goal of keeping recipients anonymous.

There were also issues of bags needing to be washed or not being returned, which made it difficult to send food home with a child the next week.

Dingmann said they simplified the process and switched to plastic grocery bags, also what NLS and MACCRAY use.

The response has been positive from kids and families.

"They're just very grateful," Dingmann said. "Nobody wants to have to utilize those services, but sometimes you have to."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750