October 20, 2004 | By: Laura Skillman

Three years ago, McCracken County 4-H members decided to tackle hunger in their community by providing backpacks filled with food for youngsters at two elementary schools to take home over the weekend. Today, the program has expanded into seven schools in the county.

“The Backpack Food for Kids program started by a group of teens that went to the 4-H Issues Conference from Lone Oak High School ,” said Torey Earle, McCracken County Extension agent for 4-H Youth Development.  “They came up with the idea through a mini-grant opportunity to provide backpacks for kids who are on free and reduced lunches who might not necessarily have enough to eat over the weekends.”

The backpacks are filled with nonperishable items that don’t require any preparation. Backpacks are used because they are commonly seen in schools, making it less obvious that a family or child is in need if they are carrying a backpack home versus a sack or box containing food, he said.

“It has really taken off, in the three years we’ve been doing it, we’ve gone from stuffing five or six backpacks a week to stuffing 40 to 45 a week this year,” Earle said.

Children are selected for the backpack program through the school’s family resource centers or guidance counselors. One of the schools in the system has 97 percent of its students on free and reduced lunches and that school receives 20 packs but could use twice that amount, he said. Children pick up the backpacks at the family resource centers at their schools and return them there as well for refilling.

Through this coming year, the 4-H youth hope to obtain enough food, backpacks and funds through grants and donations to move into even more schools. Each year, the 4-Hers have gotten grants for the program. 4-H is a community of young people across America learning leadership, citizenship and life skills.

The 4-H members also conduct food drives at LoneOak High School , the most recent of which resulted in more than 5,000 food items collected in under two weeks.  Church, civic organizations and individuals also donate. One person alone donated 100 backpacks.

Bruce Carter, a senior at Lone Oak High School , has worked with the program for two years. It started as something to do things with his friends, but has turned into much more.

“I feel like it is a good thing for our community and last week I went to pick up the extra backpacks and everybody there was so appreciative of what we were doing," he said.  "It really made me feel like I was doing something for the community. I’m proud of this program. We are trying to involve some of the younger students because most of us are seniors and we want this program to continue.”

Senior Liz Block said she became involved after attending the 4-H Issues Conference and on a recent trip to deliver backpacks saw firsthand the appreciativeness their efforts receive.

“It just makes you feel so good,” she said. “Then, the other day, we were filling up this huge backpack for a little girl that didn’t want to take one anymore because she had too many brothers and sisters and they fought over the food. It was such a selfless thing for a kid to say no I’m not going to eat since my brothers and sisters can’t eat so we just filled up a great big one for them. It makes you feel good.”

Block said she does not think they really need any recognition for what they are doing; they get it from just taking the backpacks and picking them up.

Senior Shadea Mitchell said many of the clubs at Lone Oak High conduct food drives for the 4-H backpack program, plus local churches have helped.

“It has been a real effort from every place that we can get help from,” she said.



Writer: Laura Skillman 270-365-7541 ext. 278
Source: Torey Earle, 270-554-9520