Backpacks a blessing for food insecure students in Downers Grove District 58 schools

Downers Grove High School senior Lily Kelliher, who serves as the school’s student council president and president of the Key Club, loads bags of food as part of the Blessings in a Backpack program on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. The program will provide meals for 200 food insecure students in Downers Grove Grade School District 58 who won't have access to school meals during the upcoming Thanksgiving break.

For many children in Downers Grove Grade School District 58, weekends are a time to relax and have fun with friends.

But for students from low-income families who rely on school for regular meals, the weekend can be a time of worry and uncertainty.

“There is a 65-hour gap from lunchtime on Friday to breakfast on Monday morning for kids who qualify for free breakfast and lunch at school. That’s a lot of time,” said Dan Summins, managing director for the Blessings in a Backpack Chicago Chapter. “So there are kids sitting in school not knowing maybe where their next meal is coming from.”

The national, nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack organization fills that gap by working with schools to identify children who are at risk of going hungry on weekends and providing pre-packaged meals to sustain them.

In District 58, which is comprised of 11 elementary schools and two middle schools, there are roughly 200 students each week who are benefitting from the program.

The bags include easy-to-prepare food items purchased through Sysco, such as cereal, granola bars, crackers, soup, macaroni and cheese and applesauce.

“A typical bag will have eight food items: two breakfast items, two entree items, and then snacks,” Summons said. “And it’s name brand, high-quality food. From a Blessings standpoint, we want kids to be excited about it. We don’t want them to be ashamed or embarrassed in any way receiving food.”

A team of volunteers fill the bags which are then discreetly placed in children’s backpacks before the end of the school day Friday.

“Blessings in a Backpack is an organization that is making a difference every week for the students who need it most in our district’s schools,” said Jessica Stewart, assistant superintendent for special services. “Having enough food to eat is one of our most basic needs, and students who are hungry struggle in school in many ways outside of their control. Concentration, regulation and academic performance are all negatively impacted when a student is hungry.”

District 58′s partnership with Blessings in a Backpack began in 2015, Stewart said.

“And the number of students and families who struggle to make ends meet since that time has only grown,” she said. “Across all of those years, BIAB has continued to find ways to get food into the hands of our students and families who experience food insecurity. This included a summer program this past year where they stocked our attendance centers full of bags of non-perishable foods to allow us to continue to feed students even when school was not regularly in session. The extra bags of food they provided during that time meant we could share food with newly identified families as well.”

The local high schools have helped by hosting fundraisers and packing events. For instance, the Chicago chapter of Blessings in a Backpack collaborated last month with members of Downers Grove North High School’s Empowerment Club for a packing event.

Funding for the Oct. 21 event was raised from a Blessings in a Backpack “Do It Yourself” 5K Walk/Run coordinated last year by Downers Grove North senior Alexa Noel.

Her dad, Mike Noel, has been involved with the organization for the last decade, and has served as a co-chair of the Chicago chapter’s advisory board for the past five years.

With the help of more than 30 volunteers, 500 bags of food were packed at Downers Grove North in just one hour, according to the Blessings in a Backpack website.

“I love to be involved in this organization because I know that it is helping people who actually live in my community,” Alexa Noel said. “When we did the packing event, all of the meals went out to elementary schools in District 58 which feeds into District 99, including my own elementary school. It feels good to know we are making an impact on people who live so close to me.”

She said organizations such as Blessings in a Backpack are important “because without them some families would be struggling.”

“This is a great way to get involved in the community and make a direct impact. I believe it’s important for everyone to get involved in some sort of organization at some point in their life,” Noel said. “I love Blessing In a Backpacks mission and being a part of everything they do.”

Downers Grove South High School also held a packing event Nov. 13, which was made possible by proceeds from its own DIY 5K fundraiser.

Jennifer Martinez, director of student activities, arranged for the event which included student members of the Key Club with faculty sponsors Jillian Erzig and Amy Klug, and the student council with faculty sponsors Christopher Esposito and Jennifer Wolf. Both groups are led by Downers Grove South Student Council President Lily Kelliher.

Students worked together to pack 500 bags which will cover the five days of Thanksgiving break when free lunch is not available to District 58 students. The event was supported in part from funds raised by South High School students during their annual “Gobble Grams.”

Volunteer Kim Venzon serves as the lead program coordinator for Blessings in a Backpack for District 58. She first learned about the organization through her involvement with the Downers Grove Junior Women’s Club.

Blessings in a Backpack was awarded the 2017 Downers Grove Junior Woman’s Club $10,000 Special Grant.

“When Blessings came to accept their check it was mentioned they needed more help for District 58 and everybody kind of turned and looked at me,” Venzon said with a laugh. “So I was volunteered, but I was also happy to. I appreciate how hands-on the volunteer aspect of this is.”

Each District 58 school has its own volunteer community members who make sure the correct number of backpacks are made available and dietary restrictions have been taken into account.

“We have 17 community volunteers for 13 buildings, so we’re definitely a team,” Venzon said. “And Blessings is definitely bringing a solution to the staff within the schools. Kids being hungry at school is not a new problem. I would be surprised if you talk to a teacher who doesn’t say, ‘I always keep food in a drawer.’ But we found a solution we can bring to those staff members that doesn’t cost the district anything.”

During the 2022/23 school year, the nonprofit’s Chicago chapter distributed 211,200 bags of ready-to-eat food to 5,389 school-aged children at 68 program locations across Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties, according to the Blessings in a Backpack website.

“There is a tremendous need,” Summins said. “And we are in towns you don’t normally associate with child hunger — places like Downers Grove and Schaumburg and Palatine that you think are well-to-do suburbs. But there is not one zip code in our area that doesn’t have a hungry kid in it. And you’ve got parents who are struggling to afford food because grocery prices have shot up. These families are having to make some difficult choices on whether to spend money on gas or food or clothes or medicine. We don’t think of the struggles they’re having behind the scenes.”

He feels fortunate to be in the role he is in at Blessings in a Backpack.

“I love what we’re doing. I know we can’t solve every problem but we can make sure kids are going home with a smile and a full tummy,” Summins said.

Stewart said District 58 “is grateful for all of its community partnerships.”

“And we feel especially thankful that we have Blessings in a Backpack to help support our families who struggle to provide meals for their children. It is truly an incredible organization that is making an impact in the lives of families in need in DG58,” she said.

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