Full Backpacks; Full Stomachs

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Volunteers are surrounded by cans of soup, boxes of macaroni and cheese and fresh fruit.  One-by-one, they pack the items into bags that even the most respectable third grader would have difficulty hoisting high.

The bags, once packed, will be sent home with approximately 1,000 low-income Lansing elementary school students as part of the Weekend Backpack Survival Kit program.  The program, now in its third year of existence, is coordinated by the Lansing Human Relations and Community Services Department (LHRCSD) and operates with the goal of providing low-income families with a little extra food each month.

Dr. Joan Jackson Johnson is director of LHRCSD and said that the program all began with a study.

“What triggered all this,” said Johnson “was the economy and a study that was done in 2006 that indicated in Ingham County, we had kids missing 8.2 meals each week.”

Six years later and as families continue to fall into the classification of “poverty”, Lansing students are still at danger of going to be hungry or missing meals when not at school.

In a 2009 study completed by the city of Lansing, 23.8 percent of residents lived below the poverty line with 34.4 percent of children falling under that threshold.

Recently, it became harder for the program to help the families that need it.

This is the first year that Weekend Backpack Survival Kits haven’t had the financial and resource backing of the Mid-Michigan Food Bank.  Due to this loss in funding and sponsorship, bags that were once distributed every other week are now only passed monthly.

Despite this, a need is still being met throughout the city.

“It helps the families,” said Connie Nickson, Principal of Willow Elementary School “because now they don’t have to spend as much of their own money on food.  They can use that money in other ways to support the family.”

There are 90 students at Willow Elementary who meet the criteria to receive the bags of food.  Like other schools throughout the city, Willow identifies the families that need the extra help; help that wouldn’t be provided without volunteers like Joshua Gillespie.

Gillespie, Assistant Director of Michigan State University’s Department of Residence Life, led a group of 50 MSU students and staff in packing the bags for February disbursement.

“It’s a great way to do good in the community,” said Gillespie, “and to show us how lucky we are.  We only needed about 30 volunteers to help but I kept on getting more and more people asking to help, it turned into a big group.  There are a lot of people looking for the opportunity to give back.”

For more information on Weekend Backpack Survival Kits and other programs of the Lansing Human Relations and Community Services Department, please contact 517-483-4477.

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