Food for Thought 

Local program fills students’ backpacks with healthy food.

Some Memphis students will have more than homework filling up their backpacks on weekends.

The Mid-South Food Bank's "Food for Kids BackPack Program" provides students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals with backpacks full of healthy food at the end of each school week.

Marcia Wells, vice president of communications and development for the Mid-South Food Bank, said nearly one out of every five children in Memphis doesn't have enough food to meet his or her basic needs.

"A hungry child is going to be much more prone to behavioral problems and social problems, and these kinds of things carry on into adulthood," Wells said. "Feeding children is vitally important to their ability to learn and grow."

Based on the most recent numbers from last spring, nearly 85 percent of Memphis City Schools students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, according to Alexsis Caston from the MCS Division of Nutrition Services. She said eligibility is determined through an application process or direct certification from the Department of Human Services.

"For the application process, eligibility is based on household size and annual income," Caston said. "For example, for a household of four, the maximum annual income to qualify for free or reduced meals is $41,348."

Wells said many kids who receive free or reduced-price meals don't have access to healthy food on the weekend. Patrick McCarroll, the director of school services and programs for Catholic Diocese Jubilee Schools, agrees.

"We noticed that students were eating a whole lot on Fridays and cramming food again on Mondays because they didn't have anything at home to eat on the weekends," McCarroll said.

Resurrection, Holy Names, and St. Patrick Catholic schools are among those utilizing the program. The Porter, Sardis, and Batesville Boys and Girls Clubs, Shannon Elementary, and Girls Inc.'s Riverview Kansas Center in South Memphis and its Lucille DeVore Tucker Center downtown are also participants.

Wells said backpacks typically include individual portions of chicken or tuna, peanut butter, fruit cups, and cereal with shelf-stable milk. Each backpack also has a coloring sheet, game, or puzzle with a nutrition theme.

The Food for Kids BackPack Program was designed by the National Council of Feeding America in 1995. The national program was launched in Memphis in 2006, spearheaded by the Mid-South Food Bank. The organization currently has 15 programs in the Mid-South, 11 of which are in Memphis. Other areas include Covington and Tunica.

Wells said it costs around $300 to provide one child with a backpack for a year. The programs feed from 45 to 160 elementary and middle school children.

Local sponsors include Cargill, Baptist Healthcare Foundation, AutoZone, and the Memphis Grizzlies. Wells said anyone can make a contribution to the Mid-South Food Bank, specifying that the funding be designated for the program.

"If you're donating to the backpack program, that money is going to be used to purchase food for the program," Wells said. "Any amount is welcomed. With one dollar, we can buy $4.23 worth of food."

Wells projected that the 15 regional programs combined will fill more than 1,500 backpacks a week this year. She said the 11 programs in Memphis would claim around 800 of the backpacks each week.

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