A student at Dr. King Elementary School in Syracuse accepts a bag of food from a staff member. The bag, provided by Blessings in a Backpack through a sponsorship by Centro, includes two breakfast items, two entrees and two snacks meant to fill the gap left on the weekend when schools can’t provide meals. (Photo by Sarah Hall)
On Friday afternoon, 50 students from Dr. King Elementary School in Syracuse got on a Centro bus and walked out with a bag full of food meant to sustain them through the weekend.
Dr. King is one of four elementary school schools in the Syracuse City School District taking part in the Blessings in a Backpack program, which, with the help of sponsors, provides bags of food to elementary school kids in need.
“In the Syracuse City School District, we provide more than 25,000 meals every day between breakfasts, lunches [and] snacks to our kids in the district,” said SCSD Superintendent Jaime Alicea. “But sometimes on weekends, our kids go home and they don’t have enough food to eat.”
Blessings in a Backpack, which is a national nonprofit organization, fills that gap. Each bag contains two breakfast items, two lunch items and two snacks. All are non-perishable and child-friendly and represent three of the four food groups. Sponsors commit to three years with the program at a cost of $100 per child. The nonprofit asks each new organization to start out with 50 students and work their way up.
Friday’s event marked the kickoff of Blessings in a Backpack at Dr. King, but three other city schools — Delaware Academy, Franklin Elementary and Seymour Dual Language School — already utilize the program. Delaware introduced it last year to great success, under the sponsorship of Bellevue Heights United Methodist Church; Bishop Grimes has brought the program to Franklin, and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Liverpool is sponsoring Seymour. Centro is the sponsor for the program at Dr. King. Each school starts with 50 students on the program under the guidelines of the national program. As the need is so great, more students can be added if the program is successful in its first three months.
“We’re at 50 right now,” said John Meyer of St. Paul’s. “We’ll jump to 100 by January.”
Church sponsors rely on donations from parishioners and the community to fund purchases of food. Parishioners buy food, often at a discounted price through suppliers like Sysco, and stuff the bags, then transport them to the school each week. School employees then distribute the bags to 50 children who have been identified as the most needy — no easy task in a district where every student qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
“We identify students based on teacher recommendations. We started off in September with 50 recommendations from the teachers from last year,” said Seymour Dual Language School Vice Principal Stephen Polera.
But the teacher recommendations were just a starting point — Seymour has 564 students, all of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch, and there are many more than 50 students who need extra food.
“It was like, for example, a family that has more than two or three siblings in different grade levels, then we took those first, to make sure that the whole family got one before we went with the teacher recommendation,” Polera said.
Seymour started Blessings in a Backpack at the beginning of the school year, handing out blue bookbags with food to the students enrolled in the program. Students got to keep the bookbags for other uses and now bring home their food in plastic bags; Polera said St. Paul’s is working to get new bookbags with the Seymour logo on them for the kids to use every week. It’s an extra personal touch to go with the cans of soup or single-serve packages of mac and cheese.
“We haven’t had any complaints about the food yet,” Polera said.” And then they get little extra treats in there sometimes — they put some candy in, sometimes they put some little notes in, like ‘Have a good weekend,’ just things like that. The kids love it.”
While many more students need the backpacks than are getting them, at Seymour, the program is kept relatively quiet.
“We get consent from the parents, then they explain it to the kids that this is just for you for the weekend, for you and your family to take home, and it’s kind of like a private club kind of thing,” Polera said. “The students are identified, but nobody knows that they’re identified and receiving other than the teachers and the staff that roll it out.”
Polera said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
“There’s some kids that don’t have anything when they go home for the weekends, so it’s just huge, and we’re thankful as a school that we can do this for the community, and the parents are just so grateful,” he said. “We have other things that we do at Christmas time and Thanksgiving to help them out, but this is something that they get every week and that they depend on and they need, so all this is thankfulness. It really is. And it’s helped build our community with the parents, as well.”
Polera said Seymour and St. Paul’s plan to continue to add students to the program until every child who needs the food is receiving it.
“It’s positive, that’s all I can say,” he said. “It’s been a positive experience and I can’t wait until we grow.”
To donate to Blessings in a Backpack, visit their website at blessingsinabackpack.org/donate. To donate to Seymour Dual Language Academy specifically, click on “Ways to Donate,” then “Donate to a Specific Program or School” and enter code 18044. You can also donate to the Syracuse City School District at large.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.