SEBRING – There is no paper, pencils or textbooks in the backpacks, but what they do contain is food for the brain.
The Heartland Food Reservoir Warehouse, a centralized food bank for local food pantries, is on a campaign to double its distribution of getting food for weekends to children in low-income families. Through its Elementary Back Pack Program, about 30 volunteers with Heartland have been at work filling and distributing packages of non-perishable foods and drinks to help children from 3 to 12 years old have something for their stomachs over the weekend.
From 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, volunteers gathered around tables and filled plastic bags with a variety of food that can be eaten from the package or easily heated up in a microwave oven. Inside were cans of pasta, granola bars, pudding, applesauce, fruit cups, cereal, boxed milk and other edibles to help nutritionally carry kids through the weekends.
Through donations and volunteers from various social and civic groups, Heartland Food has been able to keep the program going since it started in October, generating $20,000 through January with grants from Duke Energy, Winn-Dixie, the Champion for Children Foundation and an anonymous $5,000 donor. The warehouse has also received financial support from area churches.
Through these efforts, Marge Blanda, co-chair of the Back Pack Program, said with enough support, they hope to be able to continue getting weekend meals to children through Jan. 31, 2015.
Blanda said at $4 per child per weekend - three meals Saturday and Sunday - it costs $20,800. Currently, their are 100 pupils getting Back Packs, 25 pupils at the participating county schools of Avon Park, Memorial, Fred Wild and Lake Country elementary schools. A truck delivers the donated food from Publix, Winn-Dixie, Wal-Mart and Flowers Baking Co. to the Warehouse and next year the goal is to reach 200 students.
According to records from Highlands County Public Schools, out of 12,221 free or reduced lunch applications for the 2013-14 school year, 8,201 get free lunch, 67 percent, and 793 get reduced lunch, 6 percent.
Blanda said if food prices stay as they are, it will cost the program $41,600 to keep the food flowing through next year.
“What we have now allows us to cover the whole program and whatever is left over will go right into next year’s program,” said Blanda, a retired business teacher who has volunteered at the warehouse for three years. “The program only touches the tip of the iceberg. There are over 300 elementary students in Highlands County that get free lunch and breakfast. These children are termed ‘food insecure’ and those are what we’re trying to reach.”
The Back Pack program gets one bag containing food and another bag holding two shelf-stable milks and two juices to each participating pupil. The bags come out of stocked plastic tubs and each school gets two with 25 bags in each.
Helping keep the pricing at hand and the possibility of extending the program is volunteer Kim Timmerman. Throughout the school year, she has been pricing and buying Back Pack food items in bulk from distributors and Sam’s Clubs from Orlando, Daytona Beach and other central Florida cities. She said as an example she was able to save 23 cents per 4-ounce can of pasta by buying in bulk.
“I think it’s going very well and we should be able to extend it (the program). It’s in the beginning stages and there are still a lot more children that need to be reached,” said Timmerman, a five-month volunteer with the warehouse. “It’s worked well; we’ve cut cost of milk by a huge amount.”
As Blanda walked around groups of volunteers packaging goods Wednesday, Pauline Rose of Sebring kept a steady hand bagging granola bars. She was there with a group from Sebring Elks Lodge 1529 and said it was important for all children to have their bellies full when Mondays rolled around.
“I hate to think some don’t get much food on the weekend. I like to do what I can to help the kids so I’m here,” she said.
Blanda said Jan. 29 was the first packing and 42 volunteers packed 800 one-gallon bags of food and 800 one-gallon bags of milk and juice, enough for 100 children from February to March. Feb. 5, the five schools were supplied.
Laura Waldon, principal of Memorial elementary, said she started with the warehouse program when she was principal at Fred Wild for the 2012-13 school year. She said she hoped whoever could help carry the program into 2015 and beyond reach out and help. She said about 85 percent of the school’s 591 pupils from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade are on free or reduced lunch.
“It’s a very good program and I wish we could expand it because I think we ahve more students who could benefit,” she said.
The Heartland Food Reserve Warehouse is a satellite branch of Feeding America, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that is a nationwide network of food banks.
For information or to volunteer, call (863) 385-7885.