Children who might otherwise go hungry on the weekends have been taking bags of food home for more than five years now, thanks to a program through the Oberlin Schools.
Since the spring of 2012, Oberlin teacher Donna Shurr and the Interact Club at Oberlin High School have been filling up backpacks with food and passing them out to students at Eastwood and Prospect Elementary schools who are on the district’s free or reduced lunch program.
“They can use the food at any time, but it’s really meant to be used on the weekend,” Shurr said. “During the week, they can get breakfast and lunch at school, but on the weekends, their parents may be working and they may not have access to enough food.”
The program first started in 2012, thanks to the work of former Oberlin High School student Rachel Mentzer. In the spring of that year, Shurr and Mentzer got approval for a trial run.
“We did a pilot program for nine weeks, which was fully funded by (Oberlin) Rotary with $3,000 in the spring of 2012,” Shurr said. “This is now our fifth full year. I would say we’ve helped somewhere around 600 kids during that time.”
Since that time, Shurr has spearheaded the program.
“Donna goes around and gets all the grants. She wheels and deals for all the prices on the food we use,” Oberlin Schools food service manager Corinne Schoenbeck said. “That allows the kids to get extras they otherwise would get. There are minimums that we have to give them, but because Donna works so hard, they can get extra snacks.”
The BackPack Program is a national program but it is funded through local grants and donations. While each backpack may only cost around $4, it adds up quickly when that number is multiplied by 120 students for 30 weeks.
Shurr estimates the program costs between $15,000 to $16,000 a year to run.
Much of the food used in the backpacks is bought at a reduced price from Second Harvest Food Bank. Shurr also hunts for deals on her own.
“Leo (Braido) at IGA, every time vegetables are on sale for 49 cents, he allows me to buy a whole pallet or two,” Shurr said. “He then stores it for me because I don’t have storage space. We take 20 cases at a time and Leo stores the rest of it until we need it. I can’t tell you how much his generosity has helped the program.”
Shurr also looks for deals at Sam’s Club to try and find little extras such as hot chocolate to put in the students’ bags.
“Second Harvest didn’t have oatmeal this year, so I went to Sam’s for that as well. The kids also love the Mott’s apple snacks. They’re a healthy snack as well,” she said.
Gatorade was a huge hit. Recently, she found a great deal on Slim Jims, and was able to surprise the students with those.
“I’ve tried to do fresh fruit but if the child is absent on the day the backpacks are given out the fruit just sits there. It’s ruined,” Shurr said. “Bananas also get squished on the way home and it makes a mess. It has to be nonperishable items.”
Students in the Interact Club at OHS help Shurr fill the backpacks with food each week and then distribute them to the various classrooms at Eastwood and Prospect.
“The students who participated in providing the service benefited a great deal by helping others,” Shurr said. “Many find it difficult to understand that there are families in our own local community who need help with having enough food for their children. They often comment on the great needs around the world but have come to realize that there are many needs in their own community. They truly have come to own the program.”
Additionally, other organizations donate supplies for the backpacks. A local dentist donates toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss to give the students.
This year, the program lost a large chunk of its funding and the Oberlin Rotary chipped in a little extra to help close the gap, according to Shurr.
Oberlin Community Services is also now helping out with the program. Shurr believes they may soon be able to expand the program to include students at Langston Middle School.
Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney