Sabine ISD volunteer Misty Gee believes area school districts’ backpack programs help build relationships between families and schools.

“(Families) know that someone is looking out for them,” she said.

Districts, which rely on donations of money, food and more to operate the programs, are seeking community support as they begin to fill backpacks with food and other essential items for students to take home.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” More than 25 percent of children living in Gregg, Harrison, Rusk and Upshur counties live with food insecurity, according to the national nonprofit group Feeding America.

Weekends can be vulnerable times for children who receive school meals for free or at a reduced price, as they may only eat school breakfast and lunch during the week, said Amy Doron, dean of students at Spring Hill Primary School.

“As the population of students that receive free and reduced lunch in the cafeteria increases, then there’s a greater chance that those same kids that may not be able to purchase lunch might not be able to have food on the weekends,” Doron said.

Spring Hill ISD’s backpack program serves as many as 40 students in pre-K through eighth grade, she said.

“Whereas Friday might have been a day that was difficult for a student because they were anxious about the weekend, it’s now almost like a celebration or something exciting because they know they’re going to get something special for them in their backpack,” she said.

Children are identified for the backpack program through staff referrals and parent consultation with counselors, said Pine Tree ISD Volunteer Coordinator Donna Pruitt. She said the number of Pine Tree ISD students in its program fluctuate and tends to average 125 per week.

Schools get parental consent before large freezer bags, grocery sacks, backpacks or drawstring bags are discreetly distributed to students every Friday, school officials said.

“We send information home to the parents after the teacher, faculty or staff member has submitted their name to the counselor ... so they can know they can have an opportunity for this,” Pruitt said. “Some of our parents have declined ... but we have a lot of parents who have three or four children and they’ve said, ‘Yes, please. Thanks for helping.’”

Partnerships

Longview, Pine Tree, Spring Hill, Hallsville, Gladewater, Sabine and Gilmer ISDs work with the East Texas Food Bank to provide food for their backpack programs, officials said. New Diana ISD works with a Communities in Schools site coordinator and faith-based organizations to obtain food for its backpack program.

New Diana ISD’s program sends 11 bags of food home every week, said Nancy Essary, site coordinator for Communities in Schools of East Texas. While that number seems low, she said that amount of food could feed up to 55 children.

”The church that supports this, they give me their bags every week, and I just drop those in a backpack. (A) private donor likes to (donate food) in bulk,” she said. “There’s a high school group (Peer Assistance Leadership) ... they come down once a month (and) they break that down.”

The bags usually include shelf-life milk, juice, fruits and vegetables, a grain product and nonperishable foods such as cereal and canned meat. Gee, of Sabine ISD, said she would like to add fresh produce to the district’s Backpack Blessings program, which serves more than 30 students.

”Who doesn’t like a fresh apple?” she said.

The food items included in the bags can be opened by a small child and can be eaten without cooking, Doron said.

Counselors and volunteer coordinators at districts that work with the East Texas Food Bank order backpack food through that organization’s website. In Longview ISD, staff members make orders on the first and third Friday of each month, spokeswoman Elizabeth Ross said.

The food is distributed to 330 Longview ISD students every second and fourth Friday.

“We order enough kits to get the students through two weekends,” Ross said. “Every campus but one has backpacks going to them, and each campus has a point person that is responsible for keeping up with who receives backpacks each week and how to discretely distribute them. The students bring the backpacks back on Monday so we can restock with additional kits for the next week.”

Before holiday breaks, Hallsville ISD Secretary to the Director of Special Programs Diane Hicks said her district doubles and triples the amount of food it gives to students so it lasts while school is out. Hallsville ISD plans to serve 230 students through its Nutritional Backpacks for Kids Project.

In Diana, churches distribute “Thanksgiving food baskets,” and the Diana United Fund donates turkeys to needy families in the community, Essary said. Heads of household fill out applications noting how many people live in the home and any food allergies before receiving the food, she said.

”There’s no kind of (income) verification at all. If you’ve said you have a need, it’s going to be met,” Essary said

To equip students with food for the Christmas break, New Diana ISD has a districtwide food drive, she said.

”We collect all of these wonderful canned goods, nonperishable (foods) and all of that. Those high school kids now go and travel (to) all the campuses weekly and gather up food,” she said. “We go to First Baptist Church, to their gym, and we store it for a period of time there. The United Fund comes in and ... they get all of those basic staples — flour, sugar, potatoes, eggs and all that kind of stuff. ... A Boy Scout troop comes in and they set up boxes.”

Gilmer ISD hopes to provide backpacks for at least 50 students this school year, according to the district.

”By providing a backpack with food items to help sustain them until returning to school for a meal, their nutritional, mental and overall ... needs are met,” the district said in a statement.

More than 70 Gladewater ISD students in pre-K through fifth-grade take home “ready-to-eat food” on Fridays, said Chief Operations Officer Kim Chatman.

”Our students are happy to carry these items home, many of them sharing it with younger siblings that are not school-age yet. The opportunity to fulfill this need for our young students is a blessing to us,” Chatman said. “They are so excited to have several food options for their weekend.”

Hicks said “hunger affects a student’s learning ability.” Consequences of hunger in schools include an inability to concentrate, poor academic performance, headaches and stomachaches, according to a No Kid Hungry study.

”As a school nowadays, we’re responsible for a lot of things, not simply the academics,” Pruitt said. “If a child’s hungry, they’re not going to be able to learn, talk about math or anything else. They’re hungry.”

Support

Backpack programs are “expensive to maintain,” Ross said. They are funded by grants and donations from residents, churches, civic groups and businesses. Sabine ISD, like several districts, also receive donations for its program through a staff payroll deduction program, Gee said.

“Each backpack kit costs $24 to send out,” Ross said. “The more ... funds we have, the more we can do. If there are some months that are 100 percent covered, we can provide other needs to students such as hygiene products. There is always a need we can fulfill.”

In addition to monetary donations for the program, Hicks said Hallsville ISD also is seeking nonperishable food items, school supplies, hygiene products and socks in all sizes for boys and girls. Chatman said community members also can volunteer to deliver food to Gladewater ISD campuses.

In any instance, Pruitt said schools and the families they serve are thankful for the community’s support.

“There’s a lot of pieces to it. ... As our needs change, we try to be flexible and see what we can do to help,” she said. “We’re grateful (for) all of the support we receive. We’re grateful to be able to help our families.”

Reporter

Brittany Michelle Williams, a University of Arkansas alumna, serves East Texas as an education reporter at the News-Journal. She won Arkansas Press Association and Arkansas AP Media Editors awards for her work in El Dorado, Arkansas.