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Filling backpacks with food

Posted 1/08/14 (Wed)

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

There was a time where it may have been hard to imagine children going hungry in McKenzie County. But not anymore. The increase of oil activity has brought many new sights to western North Dakota, and along with the discovery of new technology to recover oil or infrastructure that needs to be boosted or repaired, is the finding that there are people here who have needs that they cannot meet on their own.
However, because of the efforts of one area resident, the NDSU Extension Office and some area businesses, the McKenzie County Food Pantry BackPack Program is just a few short weeks away from becoming operational and providing food for hungry children in McKenzie County.
“I am a big Food Network watcher,” states Cassie Maki, of MBI. “They support a national program called No Kid Hungry, and it got me thinking - could there be hungry children in McKenzie County?”
Maki began to look into whether there was a program that helped feed hungry children in McKenzie County, and whether there was a need for such a program.
And according to Brad Foss, Watford City Elementary School principal, there is definitely a need to assist hungry children in McKenzie County.
“We are at the front lines in the school and we see a lot,” states Foss. “There are indicators out there that make us think there may be children at the school who could be going hungry.”
Foss states that these are unique times in McKenzie County and some aspects of the area are not as welcoming as others.
“People are coming to North Dakota to try and make a living. But when they come here and find out that the cost of living here is expensive, it can become very stressful,” states Foss. “In general, if parents care and focus on their children, it shows in what we see. If a child is in survival mode, we see that, too.”
According to Maki, some of the signs of a hungry child are rushing to eat all their food, then asking for seconds. If a child lingers around the cafeteria, looking for extra food, that could be an indicator as well. Some other symptoms of hunger could be thinness, chronic illness, excessive absences or a short attention span and difficulty concentrating.
There is a program through the Great Plains Food Bank, the same organization that supplies the McKenzie County Food Pantry, called the BackPack Program.
The BackPack Program provides shelf-stable, kid-friendly food to area children, to carry them through the weekend. Marcia Hellandsaas of the McKenzie County NDSU Extension Office has been wanting to bring the program to McKenzie County for a while, but has not had the resources to be able to do so. Until now.
“I talked with Marcia and learned about the BackPack Program and that she wanted to bring the program to McKenzie County. But she did not have the funding,” states Maki.
From there, Maki enlisted the help of a connected co-worker, Laura Sanford, to contact area businesses and see if they would be interested in helping to support this program.
Maki states that her own employer, MBI, donated to the cause as well as McKenzie Electric Cooperative, as well as other businesses operating in McKenzie County.
“It is because of all the support we received locally that this program has been able to become a reality,” states Hellandsaas. “The community and the county are just so supportive of people in need.”
Hellandsaas states that because the program requires parental consent, as well as food allergy information, each parent will receive an invitation for their child to participate.
Then all the kids whose parents choose to enroll them in the program will confidentially be given food at the school by their teacher or a school official.
“The food is given confidentially because we do not want any child to be singled out for being in the program,” states Maki.
The food, which is given to a child on Fridays, is meant to last them through the weekend.
“Growing up, I always had enough to eat, so I never thought about hungry children,” states Maki. “But now, we have people living here in all sorts of situations. The cost of living is not cheap, and sometimes people live paycheck to paycheck and it is all they can do to pay their bills. In those cases, food may be the last priority.”
That is where Maki believes the BackPack Program can help.
Maki states that the BackPack Program received enough funding to provide food for hungry children through the end of the 2013-2014 school year. She is hoping that next year they will receive enough money to carry the program through the entire school year.
Any participating family will only receive food while school is in session. BackPack participants can participate in the McKenzie County Food Pantry throughout the summer to fill in the gap while school is out.