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Backpacks hold blessings for local children in need

May 4, 2019

Blessings in a Backpack is a national program that was added in Kankakee County in 2014.

Founded in June 2008, the program provides food for the weekend across the country for 87,300 students in 1,092 schools in 45 states. About 300 of those students are in Kankakee County.

Either locally or nationally, there is no government funding involved. All the food, donations and hours given in Kankakee County are the product of charity.

The local program coordinator is the Rev. Robert Bushey, who also is the minister at Central Christian Church in Bourbonnais. Think spoke with him about the program. The questions were asked by Phil Angelo with the answers provided by Bushey.

To contact Blessings in a Backpack, email BIBRVC@gmail.com or call 815-939-4433.

How did your involvement start?

I serve as part of the Continuum of Care of Kankakee County, which battles poverty. I am also a liaison with the I-Kan Regional Office of Education, which works to help homeless students.

Why is this program important?

We found out that one of the gaps in social services is providing food for the weekend for needy children. During the school week, students get free and reduced price lunches. That doesn’t feed them on the weekends.

There are students who hoard some food through the week so they have something for the weekends. Children in the wealthiest nation in the world should not go hungry. Something needed to be done.

What goes into the food packs?

We have three rotating menus, all chosen by a nutritionist. We try to pick out stuff that a child can make. There is a breakfast, a snack and a main course. Canned pasta is big. Macaroni and cheese is popular and Ramen noodles. Other regulars include canned tuna, refried beans and canned vegetables.

There usually is applesauce or pudding. There are Scooby snacks and graham crackers. For breakfast, Applejacks and Fruit Loops come in a plastic containers. All the child has to do is to peel back the lid and add milk. These cereals come with half the sugar you would get in the off-the-shelf boxes.

Every quarter, each child gets a 15-ounce jar of peanut butter.

Is the food donated?

We work with Kroger, who has been an excellent partner. We buy the Kroger brand, but often we get the name brand at the Kroger brand price. We pay for Kroger mac and cheese and get Kraft at the Kroger price.

Kroger also donates all the plastic bags we needed. That’s 300 children for 30 distributions per year or 9,000 bags.

Central Christian donates the space to store the food and store the supplies needed, as well as the room to assemble the bags of food. There is no overhead.

Who puts the bags together?

Volunteers. We put out a notice at the beginning of the year and get more than 500 volunteers. We have volunteers from churches, from schools and from businesses. Our youngest volunteer has been 2. Our oldest was 99.

(A list of volunteer organizations includes 18 churches of various denominations, teachers from Bourbonnais and Kankakee schools, Women of the Moose, banks, libraries, food services and businesses of all kinds, from auto body shops to electricians).

We use about 20 volunteers each week to stuff the bags on Wednesdays. Henry Ford would be proud. It’s a great assembly line.

The plastic bags of food then get packed in plastic tubs, which are labeled by school and delivered to the schools.

How does the program run financially?

It takes $100 to feed a child for the weekends during the school year. That means we raise at least $30,000. That comes in through our relationship with churches, from individual donations, from fundraisers and from a CommunityWorks grant through the Community Foundation of Kankakee River Valley.

Some food comes in through food drives, but the emphasis is on fresh, not outdated, items.

How are the needy children identified?

Through social workers and through liaisons with the homeless liaisons. There are more kids in need than we are serving, but we are getting the most vulnerable. The program has grown every year.

Our intention is to follow the children through junior high school.

Which schools participate?

In Kankakee, Edison, Taft, Mark Twain, Steuben, King and Kennedy. In Bourbonnais, Alan Shepard, Shabbona, Noel LeVasseur, Liberty and BUGC. And the Camelot Therapeutic Day School. The Bradley schools have their own program, which is great.

What happens during the summer months?

Our program runs from the first day after Labor Day through the last Wednesday in May. There are summer feeding programs in schools.

Do you have any fundraisers?

We try to think, “How else can we raise money?” We sell T-shirts. A spaghetti supper was held for us. Central Christian has three car cruise nights during the summer (the next events are June 19, July 10 and Aug. 14 at 310 N. Main St. Route 102, Bourbonnais). Money is raised through car entries, split the pot and concessions.

Is the hunger problem getting better or worse?

I am not sure it is getting any better. We still have a lot of people who are only one crisis away from being broke — the breakdown of a car or a single visit to the emergency room. There are SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits, but, sometimes, they do not reach to the end of the month.

The food pantries in the community do excellent work.

We have had people whose circumstances have changed, and gotten better. They opt out. We always find someone else who is in need to fill that slot.

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