One of the projects that my church has been involved with this year is the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program. I met the founder, Alanna, at a screening of A Place at the Table documentary at the Cambridge library just a couple weeks after moving to Boston. When I learned about the weekend backpack program I thought it would be something the church would be interested in. It wasn’t something that I had planned, or really had much to do with at all. Once I made the connection things started to happen and all I had to do was step back and watch ministry happen.
The idea behind the program is pretty simple and is taking place all over the country. Children in public schools who are on free/reduced breakfast and lunch don’t have a lot (or in some cases any) food at home. So they are hungry on the weekends and show up for school the next week hungry, tired, and can’t focus. Teachers and counselors are fully aware of the students who are hungry and so the program works with the schools to identify students who would benefit from the program, but sends out applications to the entire school. Once kids are signed up for the program they start receiving a bag of food, enough for 2 breakfasts and 2 lunches, each Friday. In the elementary schools the bags are placed in the kids’ backpacks while they are out of the classroom doing another activity, decreasing the stigma for those who receive the food.
This simple idea has had some major effects- students are more attentive, have better attendance (especially on Fridays when tests are taken and homework is given), and parents are more involved.
I connected Alanna with a few retired teachers from my church and they took it from there. We have done a couple food drives during the year to collect things like shelf-stable individual cartons of milk and applesauce containers to help supplement the food the program has to buy. Every week a couple women get together Friday morning to sort and pack bags of food and then deliver boxes to the schools before they start. At the end of last school year they were providing food for 150 students in 6 of the public schools in Cambridge, and they plan to expand the program this coming fall and eventually be in all 12 schools in Cambridge.
I am really grateful that I met Alanna. When she isn’t busy working her normal job in the mayor’s office or being a mom with her family, she is writing grants and fundraising for the weekend backpack program, talking with local businesses and food service providers, and working with other volunteers. This summer she helped start the “book-bike” that traveled to all of the locations where low-income children can eat lunch during the summer. Alanna came to speak at my church to thank them for their support and explain how the program started. She heard about a weekend backpack program in another state, looked around Cambridge and saw a need, and then did something about it. It was great for them to hear about the good work being done in community and how vital their help is.
Thanks to Alanna and the weekend backpack program and First United Presbyterian there are less hungry children in Cambridge.
If you’re interested in learning how to start your own weekend backpack program check out this website.