The Backpack Program: Sacred Cow or Fatted Calf?

Everybody loves backpack.

It is one of the maxims of food banking.

BackPack provides emergency supplemental food assistance to children to ease hunger over the weekend. The backpacks (in reality plastic bags after the issue of single backpack at the beginning of the year) are full of single serve food items, typically containing protein items like tuna or peanut butter as well as snack bars, small cans of chili or franks and beans etc.

Contents of one Food Bank’s Backpack

As food banks have grown over the last decade, so has the volume of food passing through them and the funds they receive. This has resulted in many of them initiating major expansions of their backpack programs – our own organization included. The money for this is so easy to raise in the local community, because it presents such a readily understandable and direct solution to the issue of hunger for kids. (Try getting a buck for SNAP outreach, people). Packing the backpacks is also a great volunteer activity, giving corporate volunteers something to do beside freeze their ass off mindlessly sorting carrots in the warehouse. This is direct and visceral. I just filled a bag with food that will soon go directly to a kid.

This expansion of backpack has been heavily supported by Feeding America, both with a formalization of what contents are required to have a backpack program meet their guidelines and also with pass-through funding. This commitment continues with the recent study into backpack nutrition.

So why is the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County making very significant cuts in the numbers of backpacks provided for in our newly accepted 2013 budget?

Mr. Todd had a very creative idea for a food-related earned income strategy…

Is it because the CEO is some descendent of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, determined to bring misery to the children of the land? Always a possibility.

Nevertheless, our reasoning is that backpack, despite its virtues does nothing to assist the people it serves in getting out of the situation they are in, so for us, that rung warning bells and meant the program had to come under considerable scrutiny.

Foodbank of Santa Barbara County Program Engine

Our mantra is that everything we do needs to achieve three things:

1. provide short-term hunger relief and nutritional benefit,

2. also provide long-term empowerment and education to help provide a pathway out of food insecurity and boost food literacy and

3. we have to find a way to make the initiative community driven (and therefore sustainable).

So, backpack probably logs a modest though unspectacular score for criteria 1. It logs a zero for criteria number two (I have seen the occasional glossy nutrition education pamphlet included in a backpack, doubtless paid for as one of the educational elements of a grant from a large corporation. Our work with this populace suggests that these sort of expensive and uninvolving attempts at education are quickly discarded.) And then for criteria three, it would probably get the healthiest score of all. There are plenty of people in the community who wouldn’t want the program to die and would provide cash and volunteer support.

With our goal to end hunger, rather than just ameliorate it at some supposedly acceptable level, this lack of effectiveness for criteria number 2 is a really serious issue. Hence our cuts to backpack in our overall program mix for children.

We believe these cuts will not affect those who need the program most, and will allow us to divert the funds (and more) to a major expansion of our award winning (have I mentioned this in the last five minutes) Healthy School Pantry Program  which we believe represents a far more impactful and long lasting nutritional intervention for our families.

Our research showed that many of the backpacks were just being provided for kids in after school programs that happened to be run in schools with a significant number of free and reduced meal students.

Master Maxwell Jorgensen. Butter would not melt…

The situation was highlighted for me, when my own stepson Max came back from his YMCA after-school program carrying a plastic bag of food from our Food Bank.  Obviously if you work in the food banking world, you are not taking home the mega bucks. Yet hopefully a backpack should be going to a family in greater need than that of the CEO of the Food Bank where the backpack originated from.

Many backpack programs go out through after school programs, but some also enter directly into the school environment. This originally came out of the hope that teachers would identify kids in need who would be the ones who would receive food. However the reality has been for many food banks, that teachers are often too busy to follow through with the admin side of having to do this, and it is logistically easier for the food bank to send a larger quantity of backpacks. We have also seen cases where larger and larger amounts of backpacks have been requested for wider distribution in lower-income schools to avoid stigmatization of those who most need help. This is an worthy consideration, but it also waters down the true intent of the program.

We did a survey of our backpack program, so that we could make sure we were basing our decisions on the real world situation rather than what we thought it might be. This survey showed that backpacks are very often shared with the children’s families, especially in a situation where a number of children in a family might be receiving a backpack. So whatever the more targeted approach that the backpack was designed for – specifically those in transitional living or homeless situations – it was increasingly being used as a simple supplement to the family diet. Plenty of those diets could benefit from supplementing, so there might be nothing wrong with this – if it weren’t for the issues of cost and nutritional value of the average backpack contents.

In Santa Barbara, our backpacks have always included fresh fruit (apples, oranges, stone fruit) or vegetables, yet we were still sometimes getting complaints from from visitors and volunteers about the quality of some of the food that went out in the backpacks.

True Confessions: These actually went out on one of our backpacks, may God have mercy on our eternal souls…

Obviously different volunteers have different perceptions of what constitutes suitable food for a child to eat. Some believe we should provide comfort to those in a tough situation by offering comfort food, whatever the ugly nutritional truth behind the bright shiny boxes. Others have a level of health zealotry such that anything we could provide would never be good enough. However I know (from my photographic proof above) that in the past, we have had  poor quality food go out in backpacks. Food that I would not give my own children to eat (which surely has to be the criteria for what we provide to other children). I have also seen backpacks serve as dumping grounds for inappropriate amounts of produce that we wanted to get out. The provision of fresh produce in backpacks is still provided in a minority of food banks nationally, and through my own visits to other food banks around the country, I have seen  all manner of borderline crap going out that may make the child’s nutritional situation worse.

Another (nameless) food bank’s  backpack. Pop tarts, chocolate milk, ritz crackers, popcorn and mac and cheese.  Not much here to grow a healthy child.

Packaging is another major issue. Feeding America requires backpacks in their programs to contain food items that should be able to be opened by a child without access to a can opener. (Does that mean we are building a generation that can’t even work a can opener?) As a result of this single ‘e-z open’ requirement, this program plays to the worst packaging excesses of the American food industry. Tiny amounts of food is entombed in containers that cost vastly more than the food they are there to protect. I should say, though, that when the zombie apocalypse comes, I’ll shotgun my way over to the backpack storage section of the food bank, because that stuff will still be in exactly the same state as the day it was incarcarated.

Remember your sensitivity training people: When someone walks into a food bank, you should never prejudge them as being either client or donor based on what they look like. However if they are shuffling with flesh hanging off and reaching for your throat, you really should consider making an exception…

We know that there is no individual child-owned solution to the nutrition challenges that kids face.  Backpacks can’t solve childhood hunger. The only solution is a family solution (supported by an adequate Federal safety net, of course).  Backpack is a short-term fix with no way to help the family provide better, more consistent food.

There is no doubt that there are many children who are in truly dire circumstances. They are caught in a family situation of serious deprivation, maybe as a result of parental addiction, mental issues or simply having the misfortune to be born to truly awful parents. These kids need all kinds of help and there is clearly a need for backpack in a situation where the child may have to source and prepare their own food on a regular basis. Everyone involved with emergency food has their own stories related to this kind of client need. People can sometimes better understand  this type of situation when I refer to something in the wider culture. The bestselling memoir, ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeanette Walls (soon to be made into a movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence) is an example that I sometimes use. Jeanette Wall states plainly in the book that her earliest memory was ‘of being on fire’, and we’re not talking literally. As a borderline starving three-year old left to her own devices by ‘different’ parents, she was boiling up her own hot dogs, standing on a chair in front of the stove and her dress caught on fire. (On her return from hospital, when she went right back to doing the same thing again, her mother congratulated her for being brave and ‘jumping right back in the saddle.’)

So clearly, some kids can use every backpack they can get their hands on to ward off starvation. The problem I am trying to highlight is that we have a whole program structured to deal with this kind of situation, whereas the vast majority of backpacks are going to kids who are not in such a dire emergency, and so the backpacks act as a nutritional supplement for the family. This is a clear distortion and if that is the case, the contents of the backpacks, with their small amount of food,  don’t really provide a lot of nutritional benefit.

We are not the lone heretics in taking a long, hard look at backpack. In fact, an organization as close as our own PDO (Partner Distribution Organization – Definition: Food Bank that cannot qualify for membership of Feeding America, except by being partnered with a larger member organization. Note to Feeding America – Could we stop this second class citizen thing?)  Our PDO, San Luis Obispo County’s Food Bank Coalition, under the leadership of Carl Hansen, no longer provides any backpacks, because they do not feel it is a cost-effective way to make a significant dent in food insecurity, preferring to focus on larger distributions to families.

So enough with the whining, Erik. What are you, with your blah-blah-blah award winning program, and your nice Santa Barbara weather, actually doing to solve the problems you have identified?

Our short-term solution is to redouble our efforts to more effectively target backpack by focusing on maintaining supply to agencies and shelters dealing with homeless families and those who need the largest short-term interventions. Within the school setting, we are looking to shift our contact point to the counselors. They are typically seeing kids who are acting out or struggling, possibly as a result of nutritional issues. Rather than just dump a pile of food on them, we want to get close to these people, provide training and to building up a real relationship to the food bank. (Having a program for the whole school which brings big benefits, like Healthy School Pantry is a great place to build such a relationship from). We can then rely on the counselors to be more effectively as a conduit for teachers to keep a wider look out for kids in need.  This creates a whole host of distribution problems – remember, food banks are great at macro, not so hot at micro. So it may be individual school volunteers picking up small quantities of backpacks from a locally sited distribution center. Maybe backpacks get dropped off along with the standard other food items by an agency that is near to the school.). Will this more time consuming approach work better than the previous scattershot approach? We will have to see, but with less food around how can expect to keep to the strategy of throwing a lot of food at the community, confident that some will stick to those who need it most.  We are hopeful that the school counselors, who are already advocates for children, will view backpack as one more tool in their toolbox to be used appropriately with the right kids, and that other families might be referred on to more appropriate Foodbank programs like Kid’s Farmers Market, Pink and Dude Chefs Middle School cooking program or the Grow Your Own Way program to help people grow more of their own food.

Up until now, I would suggest that within the food bank network, the backpack program has been both a sacred cow and a cash cow. Both of those elements, combined with the challenges of shifting food and education resources to other less ‘quick fix’ channels means that the backpack program as a mass feeding effort, as opposed to a highly targeted program will remain with many food banks for the foreseeable future.

So, am I talking out of my pop-top can? Please join the discussion and leave a comment.


6 thoughts on “The Backpack Program: Sacred Cow or Fatted Calf?

  1. Posted a long thoughtful reply which WordPress “ate.” The gist was that I agree 100%. Our own highly successful (from a funding standpoint) Backpack Buddies program is providing a band-aid to 350 (about) households. Where are the parents in this mix? Because of the anonymity of our program, we find it difficult to reach out. I wonder how many are aware of and utilize SNAP, WIC and the pantry system. I can only hope that it is all of them.

    In the meantime, kids need to eat.

  2. Thank you for the thought provoking comments. Interesting issues identified.
    I will use this a spring board for a BAckPack discussion in our shop.

    The Food Bank for Westchester does give out the “plastic bag” of food , but we do not pack individual servings …too costly …too much waste. We know the food is shared with family so we provide items that can be shared or added to the family menu: peanut butter , jelly and crackers, pasta and crushed tomatoes….etc….
    Also before a student can recieve a back pack we get signed approval from the parent , so the same student is in the program for the school year . Our goal is “nutrition not just calaories” so we make an effort to develop a menu for the backpack that is nutritious and healthy and include recepi and nutriton information ( in english and spanish ) in each bag . Parents have commented to us on how much the backpack helps and the nutrition flyer is fun to use …family preparing the meal or snack together etc.

    I know we are not following the “BackPack” model, but in our mind why would we spend hard earned donated dollars on packaging when we could be maximising the power of that dollar for food acquisition and making an impact on the health and well being by helping to develop ( we hope) healthy eating habits .

    thanks again …I look forward to a great discussion with my staff and board.


  3. I agree. Without educating our current youth to provide a completed education by providing solutions to dropouts and/or other barriers to completing at minimum a high school diploma, we are certainly doomed. It is my opinion the generational poverty is fueled by lack of education, which in turn creates family generational poverty. Ross Frazer told be once, “A child who is hungry will find it difficult if not impossible to learn, and will become and adult who will find it more difficult to earn”.

    If I had a magic wand that could end hunger by revision of current programs, here is what would happen.
    *SNAP benefits for children and their families would be tied to school attendance (NOT GRADES) attendance.
    *If a child drops out of school that one child’s SNAP benefit is suspended
    *If a child qualifies for Federal SNAP program they automatically qualify for free meals at school. (HOWEVER) If a child receives free meals at school, they do not automatically qualify for SNAP?
    *If we could streamline these two Federally Funded Program into ONE, as distributed by school districts, (& is perhaps would lowering Admin Cost of Distributing SNAP from a governmental level)
    In my opinion we would have a higher rates of graduating students, which will have eared knowledge to seek jobs, additional training, or seek higher education. (Not a Perfect Plan)
    *Puzzle ME THIS – Is what we are currently providing a way out of poverty by adding required accountability to the table using education? NO
    * Over 70 Billion in SNAP annually, and more kids qualify for free food at school then do not in most districts. We should really look at using education as leverage to access food. (It is already being done in-part by using free school meals?)

    F.E.A.R. (Food – Education – Accountability – Readiness) Program

    “The fear of being forever hungry” can be irradiated through education.

    Just a few insights of my own to agree with adding Education to the table.

    Now, go eat well

  4. You have made our day – maybe our year! We just finished an excruciating examination of our (very well-funded) Back Pack program and came to the same conclusions for the same reasons. We’re making significant changes for the 2013 school year and maybe even more radical changes next year. Thank you!

  5. Here I am, reading this over a year after you posted it. And this week, the community center I work at will deliver the first 10 backpacks of food to a local school

    We worked hard to figure out how to deal with the nutrition issue (helped to have a nutritionist look over our menus).

    And we partnered with the school principal and counselor. Our 10 kids are defined as homeless, though they all have access to a microwave. All ten come from families with transportation issues that make it difficult for them to go to a food bank (and state funding cuts have played holy hell with mass transit in our area, not that it was a great system before the cuts).

    What I found most interesting about your post was the fact that many of the issues you complain about are things that had occured to us as we put our program together.

    And did I mention–we have no funding from anyone for it yet?

    The school in question has over 50% of its students eating free lunches. The part of the county we are in has very little access to social services, thought we are trying to change that. And our goal is to help the families access additional services (such as they are).

    Because we are trying to meet certain nutritional guidelines, we are asking mostly for cash donations and purchasing the food ourselves–and it appears tha bulk buying is going to help us out.

    But if you have additional thoughts on this topic, a year after your post, I would love to hear them.

    1. Hi,
      Oh a year is not long in this business. There’s probably a can of franks and beans that has been sitting on the shelf longer than that. It sounds you are on the right track. Backpack can be worthwhile when a) It is highly targeted (as opposed to being a high visibility / low impact program to impress donors) to those who really need it, b) the nutritional content is at the forefront. Working with school counselors is a great way to go. You can ask your local Feeding America foodbank to purchase key staple items for you, and it should be cheaper from them than from a discount grocer. This should be an easy program to fundraise for. You can seek cash through a virtual food drive on a website or through other means, and also post and provide a listing of the items you need each month and ask different groups to take ownership of a chunk of the contents list. Great work!

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