Blessings in a Backpack Comes to Manchester
By Deborah Riemer
Photography By Timothy Peters
In Vermont, if you’re a hiker, you know the Appalachian Trail converges with the Long Trail for about 100 miles along the ridge of the Green Mountains. Carrying a backpack with the right stuff will fuel your journey. But there is a new connection in town between the Appalachian region, Long Trail (the school, not the mountain), and 50 schoolchildren from Manchester Elementary Middle School (MEMS). They’re trekking home every Friday with two backpacks: one full of school stuff, and the other, well that’s the Blessings Backpack. A simple drawstring bag, no logo, filled with a weekend’s worth of kid-friendly, healthy food. You can imagine which backpack gets opened first.
Blessings in a Backpack is a national not-for-profit program that provides child-friendly, non-perishable weekend nutrition for schoolchildren in need during the school year. Manchester resident Nancy Kimball has just made it local. People who come into our community may be surprised to learn that almost half of the schoolchildren in Manchester’s largest elementary school qualify for the federally funded, subsidized lunch program. “I just saw a niche and knew I could fill it,” Kimball says.
Nancy Kimball, program coordinator, with Long Trail School volunteers.
Kimball has lots of buy-in from the community. She has pallets of nonperishable food products stacked at Zion Episcopal Church. She is negotiating with food reps to buy food at cost. She has engaged the 8th grade class at Dorset’s Long Trail School to adopt the weekend food program as their stewardship project for the academic year. They’ll also help pack the drawstring bags with class parent volunteers before they get delivered to MEMS every Friday.
Moving at lightening speed, the Blessings in a Backpack program is taking off. “Taking off” are the operative words here. Kimball and her family lived in London for 10 years, but every summer she would pack up the kids and return home to Manchester. “I was on an airplane when I first read about Blessings in a Backpack. It was in People magazine, one of those do-good sections about a program that started in Appalachia. They noticed that kids were coming into school Monday morning tired and not ready to learn. The last meal these kids had was on Friday at noon in the subsidized lunch program. So they just started sending home backpacks on Friday with a little food—shelf-stable items. And, over time, the test scores started creeping up, and the kids became better learners.”
Kimball began supporting the nascent program while still living abroad. It grew in leaps and bounds, mobilizing communities and individuals to provide food on the weekends to eventually more than 100,000 elementary schoolchildren in 48 states. “One day I received an email saying I could designate where my donation went. Southern Vermont was not on their list,” she says. When Kimball moved back to Manchester two years ago, the Blessings in a Backpack program stuck in her mind.
The Manchester and the Mountains region has a strong network of nonprofit and community organizations working to support families and children in their basic food needs from the Vermont Food Bank, to Manchester’s Community Food Cupboard, to Long Trail School’s Empty Bowls, to Manchester’s Summer Lunch Program that feeds local children during the 10 weeks of summer before the subsidized lunch program in the schools kicks in. Kimball says she was fortunate to meet with many of the key players in those organizations who all gave her encouragement. “I’ve been blessed enough to be a donor. Now I can donate my time as well as my finances.”
Just a few weeks before the start of the new school year, Kimball says, everything fell into place for the launch of the first local chapter of Blessings in a Backpack. Manchester Elementary Middle School (MEMS) principals Irene and Martin Nadler welcomed the initiative. Working with the school’s two guidance counselors, Beth Barclay and Betsy Memoe, they agreed to be the first beneficiary of the local Blessings in a Backpack program. With 47 percent of their students on the receiving end of the school’s free and reduced price meal program, the school seemed a good fit. Deb Moser, chair of the Community Food Cupboard’s board, introduced Kimball to The Stratton Foundation’s executive director, Tammy Mosher. “Feeding kids is one of our primary buckets,” Mosher explains. In fact, The Stratton Foundation funds supplementary food programs in other schools within their 16-town radius. MEMS had been on their radar for some time. “We are thrilled. It is an awesome pilot program,” she says adding, “We love to be the powerhouse behind the funding, so organizations can focus on the execution of the program.” The Stratton Foundation agreed to provide the initial funds in the form of a $3,000 grant to get the local program off and running. That’s half of the $6,000 it will cost to cover the program for approximately 50 children over the course of the entire school year—funds that Kimball will have to raise locally. But the Backpack’s journey still had some bumps along the way.
Beth Barclay, the MEMS guidance counselor for the lower grades, says she and Kimball still had to brainstorm about how to customize the program to fit the MEMS community. “Many of our families who might need this program have more than one child in the school,” Barclay says. “We really had to be sensitive to that. How could we make this program work for the whole family?” In stepped Bennington’s Grateful Hearts Organization to augment the packaged food items with one healthy frozen meal, cooked by their chefs using the freshest ingredients that could serve a family of four. Barclay says that single addition to each backpack every Friday afternoon just before the child leaves school makes the Blessings in a Backpack program more attractive for their families.
In the first week of the program, Kimball’s volunteers packed 50 drawstring backpacks with breakfast bars, granola bars, oatmeal packets, soups, canned veggies, and healthy snacks and delivered them to MEMS. Just before 3pm, the frozen cooked meals were added. Inside every backpack was an opt-out letter for the families so they could see what they were opting out of. Barclay adds, “We always want to be discreet and positive. The last thing we want to do is offend somebody.”
The backpacks went to classroom teachers who quietly informed the few young children in their class that they would be going home with an extra backpack, just with some extra food for the weekend. The younger the child, the more excited they were to bring the food-stuffed backpack home. Of the backpacks that went home that first day only three families opted out. “I consider that incredibly successful,” Barclay says. “But anyone who calls us and says they want it will get it.” As for who really gets the blessings here? Nancy Kimball did not skip a beat. “The giver always gets more, for sure.”
Counting Our Blessings
The Stratton Foundation, awarded an initial $3,000 grant to the local Blessings in a Backpack program to get it off and running. They are committed to supporting programs that address the well-being of the whole child and empower families in our rural community.
Manchester Elementary Middle School (MEMS) embraces the program and devotes time and energy to make sure the children who can most benefit from Blessings in a Backpack are reached.
Long Trail School 8th graders have adopted the Blessings in a Backpack program as their stewardship program for the school year 2017–2018. They will be volunteering, fundraising, packing backpacks, and digging deeper to understand what part of their community they are serving.
Zion Episcopal Church donates a room for food storage and space to pack the backpacks every week. Shaw’s Supermarket in Manchester contributes food supplies at cost. Wal-Mart Bennington supplies food items at cost. Grateful Hearts, augments the Blessings in a Backpack program by adding a healthy, prepared frozen meal in each backpack each week. Grateful Hearts converts surplus produce from local farms into cooked ready-to-eat meals and distributes them to food banks and food pantries in Southern Vermont.
The Facts: Childhood Hunger In The United States
More than 16 million children in the United States live in food insecure homes.
Nearly half of all people who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) are children.
3 out of 5 teachers say they have children in their classrooms who regularly come to school hungry.
Three prevalent consequences of hunger in schools: inability to concentrate, poor academic performance, and headaches and stomachaches.
source: No Kid Hungry
Of the 31 million students who received five billion school meals during the 2013–14 school year, 62 percent were free of charge, 8 percent were reduced price, and the other 30 percent were paid.
source: New America Foundation
How It Works
Blessings in a Backpack is a 501c(3) national organization providing weekend nutrition to schoolchildren. The local chapter is partnering with Manchester Elementary Middle School (MEMS) for the first time. As little as $125 feeds an elementary schoolchild in this program for an entire school year. That’s 38 weekends of nutritious child-friendly, shelf-stable food packed in a backpack.
Online at www.blessingsinabackpack.org and specify Manchester, VT Fund #1871.
By check made payable to Blessings in a Backpack MEMS and mail to
P.O. Box 954
Manchester Center, VT 05255
Contact Nancy Kimball at nkimball.bles[email protected].
The Blessings in a Backpack program has no religious affiliations.