School Kids in Need Get Weekend Food Through Volunteer Backpack Program

For many children from low-income homes in the U.S., school meals may be the only food they can count on. What happens when they are home over the weekend?

According to the Feeding America website, 22 million children receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program. However, funding cuts now threaten this crucial food assistance.

There are physical and mental repercussions for lack of proper sustenance: low energy, moodiness and disruptive behavior, inability to concentrate in classes, increased risk of illness, and more likelihood to be absent.

For more than 15 years, the Feeding America BackPack Program has been helping children get the nutritious and easy-to-prepare food they need to get enough to eat on the weekends. Today, bags of food are assembled at more than 160 local food banks across the nation and distributed to more than 450,000 children at the end of the week.

Portland Backpack began a few years ago in Oregon and today has 35 volunteers who deliver much-needed food items for Portland public elementary school students to make it to Monday – when the next meal they can count on is only at school.

“These kids are insecure about whether they will have food or not, which leads to higher stress levels and concentration issues. It’s easy to think food insecurity doesn’t happen; it is such an invisible thing, but we know we’re doing something that’s very necessary,” said Diane Rheos, the program’s executive director. “And we’re only hitting the high-needs children. We know there’s more than that.”

Portland Backpack volunteers distributed more than 12,400 weekend meals to 170 low-income schoolchildren during the 2015-2016 school year. By 2020 the scope of services has expanded to about 340 kids weekly in four public schools in Portland and more are planned in future.

Portland Backpack volunteers work every single month. They pack a couple of times a month, pick up the bins and deliver them to the schools in their own cars.

“We also do events where businesses and corporations buy the food and pack it for us. In 2019 we did 11,000 food sacks for the whole school year – and we absolutely could not achieve it without such events. Just one of them can provide a whole month’s worth of food,” said Diane.

Pamela Wilson, Americas Dir. of Sales Operations at Milestone Systems, is a board member at Portland Backpack. “When I heard about what Portland Backpack was doing, it was a no-brainer for me to get involved, especially with my finance background and interest in charities for children in need. We have some really large aspirations, and we’ve doubled our fundraising in the two and a half years since the organization became a 501c3 non-profit. We would like to serve all the schools within the Portland area that have the need, and four more schools have been identified.”

When Milestone held their Americas annual kickoff conference for the new year, they included an afternoon stuffing Portland Backpacks with food for hungry kids. 175 employees produced 1,200+ meals for 1,200+ children. They filled 156 bins for delivery.

“It’s a huge amount – the biggest packing we’ve ever had!” said Diane. “So that’s more than 1,200 times when a kid will not have to worry about getting food on a weekend.”

In each backpack, the Milestone staff also got to add handwritten, caring notes for the children. Over 40% of the Portland Backpack kids are Spanish-speaking, and since Milestone is a global organization, many of the cards were made in both English and Spanish.

Milestone staffers are pleased to take part in giving back to the community*, and management continues to discover and support more ways to do so. Employees also have the option to take a paid day off each year to do volunteer work for any non-profit organization of their choice.

Want to help get more food to children in need? Volunteer or donate to PortlandBackpack or find other city locations at FeedingAmerica.


*Link to other posts on charity support from Milestone: