A new program is helping to feed about 100 students at 12 different schools across Hunterdon County.
At the end of each week, since the start of the school year, food insecure children are discreetly given a backpack filled with enough nutritious foods and drinks to supply them for the weekend. The program, in its current form, was organized a few years ago after a school nurse approached Kim Blanda, RN, about the wellbeing of some of the students that had come to see her.
“There were some students of hers that she honestly didn’t know if they were eating over the weekend, and of course that’s just so alarming,” Blanda, who is the program’s coordinator, told Lehigh Valley Live. “So I started to talk to more of the school nurses, and there were a lot of concerns throughout the county that there were children who were experiencing food insecurity.”
While the median household income in Hunterdon County is $110, 969, which is the highest of any of the neighboring counties and well above the state median household income level, 4.46% of its population is living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey.
“Hunterdon County is a county in which poverty is prevalent,” Janet Bray, NORWESCAP Development Coordinator, told Lehigh Valley Live. However, because it occurs in pockets throughout the county, “it isn’t really recognized or addressed as much as it should be.”
In the course of figuring out how to aid these food insecure students, Blanda came across NORWESCAP’s backpack program, which, at the time, was serving four students from the same school. With a grant secured from New Jersey Health Initiatives, an arm of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NORWESCAP expanded its program in collaboration with the Flemington-based Hunterdon County Partnership for Health.
The aided students are identified by nurses at the participating schools, or, occasionally, by school administrators or counselors. And the students receive their backpacks, which are prepared by the NORWESCAP Food Bank, from their school nurse.
“We have families who have pride, and it’s hard for them to go to a food pantry. So this is anonymous,” Bray said. “We don’t know any children’s names or anything.”
One nurse who hands out 17 to 18 backpacks a week said her students look forward to receiving their backpacks each Friday. While the contents vary from week to week, NORWESCAP included extra staples over the weeks leading up to the holiday break. “[The backpacks] help them get through that longer period when they don’t have access to the free lunch and breakfast programs at the school,” Blanda said.
“The holiday season is fortunately when these things come to light, but it’s really not just the holidays that we need to think of these children and these programs,” Bray said. “It’s an ongoing issue, and it’s an increasing issue.”
If you’d like to donate to the backpack program, contact the NORWESCAP Food Bank at: 908-454-4322 or email@example.com.