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Wright County News

Posted on: January 10, 2020

Backpack Buddies Program Helping Hungry Families

Sometimes the reality of those who are struggling the provide their kids with the basic necessities of life can be a little overwhelming. Not every child gets three meals a day and Buffalo-Montrose-Hanover School District has decided to do something about it.

For the last few years, as part of the wRight Choice program – a multi-district alternative to out-of-school suspension that has students serve out there suspensions in a classroom at the Wright County Government Center – students spend part of their Wednesday afternoons assisting with the Backpack Buddies program.

The mission of Backpack Buddies is to reduce the effects of childhood hunger by providing nutritious, easy-to-prepare meals and snacks for children in homes where food is in short supply.

The two wRight Choice educators – Nate Hanson, wRight Choice teacher, and Raquel Groetken, wRight Choice education support professional, oversee filling the backpacks. Currently, they fill 76 backpacks a week.

The Backpack Buddies program works in conjunction with the Buffalo Food Shelf and Second Harvest Heartland to try to keep the program thriving because there has been a demonstrated need that needs to be filled.

“Some families struggle to make ends meet and something like putting food on the table can be difficult,” Hanson said. “We have kids that get breakfast and lunch at school during the week, but some families have six or seven kids and you just don’t know how well they’re going to eat on weekends or if they’re going to miss meals because there isn’t enough to go around.”

The program attempts to mix things up from one week to the next to give the families different meal options, but there are staple foods like rice and oatmeal that are typically included.

Because of the time needed to prepare the backpacks and when it gets home with the children more than 24 hours later, the program steers away from produce or temperature-sensitive items. But, the goal is to have a variety of different options to send home each week.

“Every week it changes a little bit,” Hanson said. “We put in different things for a breakfast, two lunch or dinner options, snack type foods and a fruit or vegetable option. It’s almost all canned or boxed because of the difficulty of dealing with fresh fruit and vegetables or things that can expire.”

Each week brings a new challenge to fill the numerous backpacks that families have come to depend on. The program becomes like an assembly line with the backpacks being filled on Wednesdays and going out at the end of the school day Thursdays.

The idea of using backpacks came after the program was started because, in some instances, the kids felt a little embarrassed when the food was distributed in paper grocery bags.

“When they started the program, they used brown bags and those kind of stuck out,” Hanson said. “Most of the kids are good about it, but it could make some of the kids uncomfortable. With the backpacks, it’s different. Just about every kid has a backpack, so it doesn’t stand out.”

The primary supporter of Backpack Buddies is United Way, which allocates $12,000 a year to the program. But, the program needs other donors and also relies on area groups and charitable organizations that help with donations.

Hanson said one of the boons to the program has been a partnership with the Buffalo Cub Foods, which provides space for local residents who wish to donate to use that option – one of a trio of ways people can get involved.

“There are three ways to donate,” Hanson said. “First, at Cub by the dairy section there are bags that are listed as Backpack Buddies bags. There are different prices and the bags have already been filled. They also have a bin in front for people who want to pick out what they want to donate. Second is cash donations. Some people prefer to do it that way and it helps us because we buy in bulk and those dollars always help. A third way is to volunteer to physically fill up the backpacks. Usually we have the wRight Choice kids do it, but some weeks we’re shorthanded.”

As much as students don’t want to be attending classes with wRight Choice – after all, they had a serious school violation to garner a suspension – the Backpack Buddies program has positive qualities that help those who are serving out school suspensions feel like they are doing some good for their fellow students.

“Most of them like doing it,” Hanson said. “It teaches them that are a lot of families that need help of some kind because they’re struggling. It’s gratifying for us at the school to help these families, but you see the kids getting a benefit out of it, too. Most of them look forward to putting the backpacks together. These kids have had some problems that brought them to wRight Choice, but deep down, they’re good kids and you see that when they’re doing something to help out other kids and their families.”

For those looking for more information on Backpack Buddies, they can call Hanson at (763) 684-2395 or email Hanson at nhanson@bhmschools.org or Groetken at rgroetken@bhmschools.org. For those looking to make a monetary donation, direct mail to Buffalo High School, Attn: Nate Hanson, 877 Bison Blvd, Buffalo, MN 55313. Makes checks payable to “Backpack Buddies.”

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