More than 40% of children in Providence, Rhode Island live below the poverty level. These children do not have access to healthy food or stable living environments. Some of the children are even living in cars. This problem has far reaching consequences, since a student who is worried about where his next meal is coming from cannot concentrate in a classroom to learn the skills needed to break the cycle of poverty.
Last year, Sodexho cafeteria workers noticed high school students waiting outside the cafeteria on Friday afternoons. These students depended on the school breakfast and lunch programs for their weekday meals and faced a weekend with inadequate food for their families. They were hoping to convince the cafeteria workers to give them leftover food they could take home to feed themselves and their siblings for the weekends.
Providence Sodexho School Services saw this as a major problem and in March 2003, the Backpackers weekend food distribution program was born. Backpackers is now a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides weekend food supplies for students in high schools and middle schools. There are plans to expand the program to the elementary schools also, as soon as the program has enough support and funding. Other Rhode Island districts as well as some Massachusetts districts have begun to develop programs using the Backpackers as a model.
Sodexho employees voluntarily oversee the program and contribute the funds necessary to provide the food. Each backpack cost $5 per month to support. Guidance counselors, teachers or principals identify students in their schools who need assistance. Each student is assigned an identifying number and given a survey to determine their likes, dislikes, sibling and access to kitchen equipment like can openers, refrigerators, etc. Each week, June DiLorenzo, Production Manager for Sodexho School Services in Providence, goes to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and shops from the items available for nonprofit organizations. There, she picks out food based on the students’ preferences and needs, remembering that not all of them have access to a stove or microwave and that she may need to include a can opener in the backpack that week. The food for each child is placed in a backpack identified with the child’s special number.
From there, the food, as well as information on area shelters, soup kitchens and other assistance available to the teens, is sent to the schools and given to the guidance counselors. Each Friday, the student goes to the guidance counselor and picks up their backpack filled with food, which gives them supplies to survive the weekend. The backpacks provide scholarly camouflage – the students can blend in and avoid the stigma of being poor and needing to carry home a visible box or bag of groceries.
At this time, individuals, most Sodexho employees, who choose to adopt a backpacker for $5 a month, fund the Backpackers program. Sodexho School Services is hoping to expand their program to reach the elementary schools as well as to reach more students who need the help.