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.
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?
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.
Our mantra is that everything we do needs to achieve three things:
1. provide short-term hunger relief and nutritional benefit,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.