Backpack program has RTR students fighting hunger in their schools

TYLER – This fall, officers of the Russell-Tyler-Ruthton FFA took on a new service project to help fight hunger. It’s one that hits close to home, by helping fellow students and their families.

On Wednesday afternoon, seven RTR FFA members gathered in Brian Boomgaarden’s classroom at RTR High School in Tyler and formed a small assembly line. Based on a menu set for the week, they put together packages of food that would help meet a child’s nutritional needs during the weekend. Zipped up in plastic freezer bags, the packages were ready to be placed into children’s backpacks and taken home on Friday. The backpack program has been running since the middle of November, students said.

“It’s a great opportunity, to be able to help other people,” said Cheyenne Kaffenbarger, a member of the RTR FFA chapter.

Boomgaarden said the idea for the backpack program came from staff discussions about how to address student needs in the RTR district. One of the most pressing needs children and families can face is hunger. Boomgaarden lives in Pipestone, and he said he knew of a similar backpack program there to help students who might be going hungry on weekends. Organizers approached some of the FFA members to help assemble food packages for an RTR backpack program.

From there, the students said, FFA chapter officers decided to take the lead on the program. Once a week, a group of FFA members meet to take inventory and put together packages of food. Boomgaarden does the grocery shopping. The group has a menu that rotates on a four-week cycle, but a typical package contains portions for breakfast, lunch and snacks.

“Every week, they get some sort of cereal. There’s juice pouches, apples, oranges,” as well as packaged entrees like soup or macaroni and cheese, said FFA student Krista Johnson.

“It’s things that won’t spoil, and that will be OK in a backpack,” added FFA student Megan Williams.

After the food packages are assembled, RTR staff distribute them at the elementary, middle and high schools. The identities of the children who receive the food packages are kept confidential. The FFA students said all they know is the total number of food packages needed that week. Teachers put the food into backpacks or lockers at times when it won’t draw attention or create stigma for the child, Boomgaarden said.

Although they enjoyed being a part of it, students said the main challenge facing the backpack program is funding. Boomgaarden said it costs about $200 to $250 a week to buy food. Students said they’ve asked for donations from the community and are also planning fundraisers.

“We’ll be selling SDSU ice cream,” at an upcoming basketball game, said FFA student Carly Fritz. “And we’re thinking of some other fundraiser ideas.”

“As long as we can do it, we want to stick with it,” Williams said of the backpack program.