Backpacks aren’t just for carrying expensive textbooks, crinkled homework assignments, and eraser shavings. For Mesa-based non-profit United Food Bank, they’re a means to feed.
“Hunger is a hidden affliction,” said Jayson Matthews, Chief Development Officer for United Food Bank. “No one wears a sign around their neck that says they’re hungry.”
As a result, United Food Bank has used its Backpack Program to provide almost 800 backpacks full of food a week for kids who face food insecurity — when the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways, is limited or uncertain – a problem that continues to grow in Arizona with 1 out of every 4 children having to face it.
United Food Bank’s Backpack program began a little over four years ago through a $2,500 grant from the Sodexo Foundation. The original grant allowed UFB to provide 75 backpacks a week to one school for that academic year, according to Sagé Randall, director of programs and Networks for United Food Bank.
Randall said that the children who participate in the program are often on their own or in the care of older siblings over the weekend while parents are at work or looking for work.
United Food Bank counts on school officials to identify and invite children in need of the program and if a child chooses to be a part of the program, they will pick up a backpack filled with food on Friday afternoon, distributed by onsite teachers, and return the backpack Monday to be filled again for the following weekend.
As simple as the program sounds, Matthews said that there are complications that can occur and most importantly, they want to preserve every child’s anonymity.
“Confidentiality is important, it has to be something we honor,” he said, because the kids are facing difficult circumstances at home and coming to terms with food insecurity and getting aid can be embarrassing. Matthews said there have also been instances where parents will take the food from their child and it won’t be used to aid the child like United Food Bank is intending it to.
Every backpack is ordinary, not branded by the United Food Bank as their own, fit to blend into the student population so a child won’t refuse aid because they’ve been discovered.
The food they provide needs to be easily prepared by children so they can provide for themselves Matthews said. Food like Easy Mac, which can be prepared by just pouring hot water into the packaged cup of noodles and adding sauce after heating it in the microwave, or peanut butter are high in demand.
But he doesn’t recommend that everyone looking to contribute to the Backpack Program donate just any food they find.
Because of the nature of the backpack program, it’s difficult for United Food Bank to get the correct donations needed, ones that are nutritionally balanced and child-friendly, and they always recommend that individuals or businesses looking to donate food to call ahead for guidelines.
Matthews said the best way to donate is through monetary funds because the organization can purchase more for their money than the average consumer. Normally every dollar donated to United Food Bank is enough to provide up to five meals, but with the Backpack Program it costs them $5.25 to fill the backpack with food because provisions are specially packaged and chosen for kids.
A cost of $5.25 may seem cheap to the average person for a weekend’s worth of food, but Matthews said that is actually expensive for the organization.
It’s more than worth it though for the United Food Bank and its mission to “provide access to nutritious food through community partnerships, food distribution and education in the greater East Valley and Eastern Arizona,” according to its website.
To fulfill that goal, volunteers are counted on to help with events, donate, run food-drives, and sort food among other duties. For the Backpack Program, volunteers help clean out returned backpacks and fill them up the day before they’re distributed.
“Teachers and staff have shared with us each year that they see better attendance, more focus and great participation in the classroom from these students,” said Randall.
Matthews said the organization has accumulated enough to build a small reserve of backpacks for the rest of the school year in case one of the two needed for each child is damaged, lost, or stolen.
Most of the packaging and planning for the Backpack Program takes place at United Food Bank’s two locations: its original facility at 358 E. Javelina Ave. in Mesa and its newer facility at 245 S. Nina Dr. in Mesa.
United Food Bank has been in the Valley for 30 years and has numerous programs to target hunger in Arizona like Helping Hands, Food for Thought, Kids Café, Emergency Food Boxes, Helping Yourself and of course, the Backpack Program.
Matthews said the organization was able to distribute 22.3 million pounds of food last fiscal year with the help of its network of 225 partner agencies, which equates to about 56,000 meals a day.
“Unfortunately, there’s still more need than we are able to provide,” he said.
One way that United Food Bank promotes growth and gets people excited about helping is through small tours of its 3-year-old warehouse facility.
“We’re really proud to show off what we do,” Matthews said. “When you donate to a program, you should be welcome to see how you’re part of the United Food Banks mission to feed the hungry.”
The Valley of the Sun United Way, based out of Phoenix, has a similar program called WeekEnd Hunger Backpack program that is part of its Community Objective to End Hunger. They’ve been working with the United Food Bank for two years on weekend programs and are finalizing a formal partnership, according to Amy Schwabenlender, vice president of community impact for VSUW.
United Food Bank’s service area is over 25,000 square miles with approximately 22 percent of Arizona’s total population in that service area, according to its website,
unitedfoodbank.org. Backpacks are provided to approximately 10 sites in Queen Creek, Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe, Scottsdale, Apache Junction and in the rural community of Vernon, Arizona.
According to financial numbers provided on the Better Business Bureau’s website, 98 percent of United Food Bank’s revenue, $32,169,243, ending in fiscal year June 30, 2011 was been spent towards its charitable programs, with the remaining 2 percent split between fundraising and administrative expenses.
Aaron, a senior studying journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.