March 26, 2020

Weekend backpack program still providing much-needed food

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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food bank volunteers
Caption: SOCIAL DISTANCE DELIVERIES. Cliff Haslun, a bus driver and member of the Schoharie Employees Association, and Michele Borst, a school speech pathologist with Schoharie Teachers Association, load a district vehicle with food. Photo provided.

Many educators are now serving as search engines: finding students who are hungry and getting them food.

Thanks to a regional food bank and the volunteer efforts of educators, the weekend backpack program that feeds students is still thriving. From the Capital Region to the Canadian border, west to Delhi, and south to Putnam and Rockland counties, students in need continue to receive their food on Friday during these turbulent times through the services of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

The food bank has drivers making deliveries for the backpack program in their big green trucks, bringing cases of food once a month to central locations — such as church parking lots — in 23 counties. For schools in the vicinity of the Capital Region, coordinators pick up the food weekly from the Latham warehouse and bring the supplies back to their school.

The food bank provides the food through a weekend backpack program that serves 250 schools in their territory. Although all school buildings in New York are closed, there are still 220 schools using their services, said Betsy Dickson, director of children’s programs.

Want to help others during the pandemic?

Donate to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York at regionalfoodbank.net. You can direct your donation to a specific school district if desired.

Looking to donate to your local food bank?

Visit FeedingAmerica.org and search by ZIP code for the food bank closest to you.

“The food bank is here. It’s our obligation to help out in times like this,” she said. “We send full cases of food to our partner schools.” That might include soup, canned tuna, ravioli, macaroni and cheese, or peanut butter and jam.

Under the current situation, Dickson said social distancing is carefully practiced during drop-offs. The food is set down and the driver walks away. Volunteers pick up the goods one person at a time.

“I just finished packing up the bags,” said school speech pathologist Michele Borst, Schoharie Central School Teachers Association, when contacted about the program. The day before, she had driven to the food bank for the pickup, as she has since she began serving as one of the program coordinators. District bus drivers will deliver the Schoharie food bags on Friday to 33 pre-K-12 students in the weekend backpack program.

Borst works each week with colleagues Anne Dozelli at the elementary school, and school counselor JoLyn Borst at the high school. Along with sorting and packing food, the volunteers set up spreadsheets to track food supplies and deliveries.

Most foods are “shelf-stable,” such as rice, oatmeal, snacks, pasta or fruit cups. Fresh bread and produce are also added for the weekly program.

“This week we have apples and iceberg lettuce,” Borst said.

Additionally, twice a month families get gift cards to Stewarts for a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs.

For Catherine Sample, who teaches students with special needs in the northern New York town of Peru, this is her first year of helping to coordinate the weekend backpack program.

Typically, when school is open, students in life skills class help sort the food and put together the weekend backpacks, said Sample, a member of the Peru Association of Teachers. That work is now limited to two educators who work a safe distance apart to sort the supplies delivered by the Regional Food Bank into individual bags. Index cards are stapled to the bags to indicate which bus routes they should go on for the Friday direct drop-off.

Buses are also delivering breakfast and lunch during the week to students who need food. Before schools closed Sample said there were 45 students getting the food, but now there are 60.

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