Kids Pack

Kids Pack

Offering Hope and Charity for Children

BY MARIA IANNUCCI

For many of us, it’s difficult to imagine a time of hunger that couldn’t be satisfied. To envision Polk County children whose circumstances may force them to go without regular meals is heartbreaking. Fortunately, thanks to kidsPACK, many of those kids are granted the opportunity to feel secure about where their next meal is coming from.

20130313_161241-1A non-profit organization, kidsPACK is supported by community leaders, sponsors and volunteers dedicated to feeding homeless and hungry children by giving them a backpack of nutritious food each Friday to sustain them on weekends when they don’t have access to school meals. Over the course of the 2012-2013 school year (representing the organization’s second full year in operation), kidsPACK served 48 public schools in Polk County; and it also operates in Osceola, Hardee and Hillsborough Counties. Interest in this initiative is quickly growing throughout Florida and beyond.

According to the USDA, “In the United States, 1 in 4 children is ‘food insecure,’ not knowing where their next meal will come from.” Unlike many other food programs, kidsPACK has no direct contact with the children it serves. Rather, teachers identify those students that seem to be at risk and showing signs of hunger. They then pass along numbers – not names out of respect for their privacy – to a kidsPACK liaison to add to the weekly food delivery. A critical component of the program is that children receiving help are not singled out among their friends as needy.

The backpacks (thus the name kidsPACK) are non-descript and when the food arrives at the schools, it is discreetly distributed. The foods selected are containerized, such as ravioli and fruit cups as well as portable snacks like granola bars, crackers and Pop Tarts. This will cover a child’s needs for a weekend, when they may not have access to other subsidized programs or direct assistance. Each backpack contains exactly the same food items as every other backpack to ensure that each child is treated equally. This standard prevents the organization from relying on unpredictable food supplies.

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Hunger has a direct link to a child’s ability to perform academically. Undernourished children often do not learn as much, as fast or as well; have impaired ability to concentrate and perform in school; experience more behavioral, emotional and academic problems; and tend to be more aggressive and anxious. Lack of adequate nutrition can also affect a child’s health. Alleviating hunger can have an almost magical impact in a child’s quest for learning.

The initiative is led by President/CEO Shawna Butler who has been at the post since last fall. Her prior experience working with the United Way for several years has helped her with continuing to move kidsPACK forward in its endeavors. When kidsPACK Started in the fall of 2011, we were serving about 100 children,” said Butler. “By the end of the school year, we had quadrupled that number. What kidsPACK does is feed kids. It helps them get through weekends, holidays and summer vacation. We bridge the gap.”

In one short year, kidsPACK has gone from feeding hundreds of children to impacting thousands. “There are over 2,400 children in Polk County that have been identified as being homeless,” said Butler. “There is at least double that amount that is hungry. During the year we give these children hope by making sure they don’t go hungry. Eating doesn’t stop with the school year ends, so we feed them straight through.”

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Funded completely by community, donors, and grants, kidsPACK works diligently to stop hunger; but it takes more than funds to do it. A volunteer staff of over 250 amidst about 15 packing sites is responsible for coordinating meals and weekly delivery to over 50 schools in four counties.

Through efficiencies, kidsPACK is proud that over 91% of every dollar donated goes straight to provide direct assistance. Monetary contributions and specific food donations, as well as volunteers, are always accepted. “We have had parents bring children as young as age 3 to volunteer their time and they do it as a family to teach the benefits of giving by example,” said Butler. “We are so blessed that our community has really come together; it makes all the difference for each and every child we serve.”

Perhaps the children who benefit from the program say it best in the anonymous notes they have sent to kidsPACK in gratitude: “Dear kidsPACK, I want to tell you something… thank you for the food and the backpack. I am so happy because I have food in my house. I want to keep my backpack forever.” – Child from a Polk County School. For more information about kidsPACK and how you can help, please visit www. kidsPACK.org.

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