In the United States, hunger and food insecurity continue to be a persistent problem – 41.2 million people lived in food-insecure households in 2016, 6.5 million of which were children. Defined as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, food insecurity is particularly concerning when it affects children, as a lack of nutritious food often leads to poorer diets, which can then be linked to a variety of health issues including obesity, behavioral and concentration problems, lower academic achievement, and delays in social and mental development.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, a school nurse launched her own Food for Kids program in 1995 after seeing many tired, sick children falling behind in school due to hunger and food scarcity at home. She partnered with a local food pantry and developed an initiative to reduce “weekend hunger” by giving students in need of assistance enough food for breakfast and lunch on the weekend. She did this by distributing backpacks containing the food to students on Friday afternoons. This became the first school BackPack program, which has since grown to include 38 states and serves more than 230,000 children.
While BackPack programs are unique and individualized to each specific school, there are a few commonalities that unite each project:
- The program partners with an external food pantry or food vendor to supply the food, and generally relies on community fundraising for financial support.
- Community volunteers perform the majority of the work—packing food into backpacks, storing packs, and delivering them to schools.
- Each backpack contains easy-to-prepare foods for 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 2 snacks, 1 fruit option, and 1 vegetable option, as well as a recipe card with nutrition tips that correspond to the food they are receiving that week. See a sample cycle menu below.
- Teachers, nurses, or other school staff deliver the backpacks to students in a discreet manner, such as dropping them in a locker.
BackPack programs provide several benefits to communities. In one Feeding America report, there was a significant increase in the percent of families in the program who moved from the low-food insecure status to food secure, as 13% of families participating in the BackPack program experienced this status switch compared to only 5% of families who were not participating. Furthermore, 20% of very-low-food secure parents described the program as having a big effect on their budgets.
However, there are also common challenges in implementing this program. The BackPack program does not operate during the summer, which may make it more difficult for families to allocate food during this time. Additionally, children whose families are at the margins of food insecurity may not qualify for this public program, but still benefit from it. Perhaps a new qualification standard should be created to ensure all children in need receive assistance. Another point in question is the nutritional value of the food, as one program worker said the food is “not filling the true nutrition gap, but it really is helping the recipients.” Finally, while the backpack delivery attempts to be as confidential as possible, stigma associated with participation in hunger relief programs still exists. If these barriers prevent a BackPack program in your school, consider other models of student food insecurity relief, like food pantries, food drives, or food waste recovery efforts. For example, the Chicago Healthy Kids Markets evolved from a BackPack program and currently operate as school-based, market-style food distributions that provide nutritious food to students and families who may not be able to visit a traditional food pantry.
If a BackPack program might work in your school, consider the following suggestions for supporting such programs. As a school staff member, seek out opportunities to learn about reliable indicators of food insecurity. You are a vital resource in identifying students who may need additional assistance, even beyond a BackPack program. Communication with the school community is also a crucial key to success. As a parent, know that it is possible for your voice to be heard! As a participant in a program like this, your feedback can only improve the initiative. If you are not a participant but would like to bring a BackPack program to your child’s school, it is possible! Meeting with a school superintendent or principal is a great first step in establishing a hunger relief operation like the BackPack program. Finally, check out the Hunger Free Colorado backpack program toolkit for these and other ideas!
Catherine Spivak, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University
Alisha Gaines, PhD, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University
Backpack Food Program Starter Toolkit PDF. Hunger Free Colorado.
Beyond the Lunchroom: How School Meals Can Promote Nutrition and Combat Hunger. eXtension Healthy Food Choices in Schools.
Byker Shanks, C., Harden, S. (2016). A Reach, Effectiveness, Adoption, Implementation, Maintenance Evaluation of Weekend Backpack Food Assistance Programs. American Journal of Healthy Promotion, 30(7), 511-520. DOI: 10.4278/ajhp.140116-QUAL-28
Feeding Children During the School Year. Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Fiese, B. Backpack Program Evaluation. Family Resiliency Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign.
Food Security in the US: Key Statistics and Graphics. USDA Economic Research Service.