Weekly, volunteers gather at the Café of Hope in Huntington to participate in the Blessings in a Backpack program, packing bags of food for children in Huntington County who are facing food insecurity.
On Wednesday, Dec. 9, several nurses from the Parkview Huntington Hospital, along with other volunteers from the community, donated their time to pack 380 bags.
Each packing night, volunteers and their Blessings in a Backpacking leader gather the necessary menu items from the program shelves, ensuring there is enough of each item to fill each bag that is needed for the week. Once the correct menu and the correct amount has been laid out, volunteers create an assembly line and fill each bag. At the end, bags are tied up and placed in groups of 10 in plastic tubs so that drivers can then pick up the tubs and deliver them to the elementary schools around Huntington County.
Menu items vary week to week and can include items such as canned soup, fruits, vegetables, granola bars, macaroni and cheese, fruit snacks, oatmeal, cereal, peanut butter and more. Each of the weekly menus are planned in advance so that students are receiving the proper caloric intake as well as receiving well-balanced meals.
Blessings in a Backpack has grown in Huntington County from humble beginnings, helping around 50-75 children each week when it first started to now assisting nearly 400 students a week.
“We are just constantly growing,” Helen Williams, a committee member, said on Wednesday.
The program has also received several grants from around the area, which has helped the program to expand and improve in several ways.
“We were able to buy stronger bags. . . the grocery bags were so flimsy, they were always breaking and the kids were dropping their food all over the bus. . . we were able to beef up the food that we are giving and make it as healthy as possible. . . we’ve had a grant to buy new totes because our other totes weren’t functioning. . .”
Like many programs in the area and in the country, Blessings in a Backpack has faced some challenges brought on by COVID-19 this year.
“We’ve kind of had to change up our menu a little bit because there have been certain items that are harder to get. We haven’t been able to give as many fruits and vegetables as we would like, because those are harder to get. . . macaroni and cheese has been hard to get!”
The program relies on non-perishable food items, which quickly came off the shelves when the pandemic first came to the U.S.
The program has recently been partnering with the Community Harvest Food Bank to receive necessary food items.
“We’ve had some connections through our group, you know, friends and family that work at different stores and things that have really helped out,” Williams said.
Ed Freise, a board member for the program, has been involved with Blessings in a Backpack since the very beginning, volunteering alongside his youth group students at Bible Baptist Church. He has seen the program grow into a “true community ministry.”
Freise also explained that some community assistance is completely unexpected.
“Like today. All the macaroni and cheese from tonight? It’s a complete mystery. Nobody knows where it came from, nobody knows how it got here, it’s just a mystery,” Freise said. “There are a lot of behind-the-scenes people that nobody ever knows about. You have drivers that come in and drop the food off, people running to stores to use the budget to buy the food we still need, ALDI who has gone above and beyond to help us. . . and so much more.”
Volunteer groups have come in all sizes big and small to help with Blessings in a Backpack in Huntington. Local church groups, businesses groups, fire departments, the police department, athletic teams and more have volunteered to help with packing bags or unloading freight for the program.
“We actually have some groups that have already volunteered to help next semester,” Williams said.
Freise has seen first-hand the impact that the community has made on the program. “The community stands behind it, they support it. . . through the food drives at churches and businesses, the money sent forth by churches and businesses. Many organizations have truly come behind Blessings. We are able to support hundreds of kids a week through this ministry.”
To find more information about the Blessings in a Backpack program on a national scale, visit blessingsinabackpack.org.