Over the course of September’s Hunger Action Month, volunteers from across the region have packed more than 7,000 weekend meal kits for area children at-risk of hunger at the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN) building in Chisholm.
Those meal kits will go to more than 1,000 children on the Iron Range and in Koochiching County through the Buddy Backpack program. Last year, the program served 850 Iron Range children and 150 Koochiching County children, but schools have indicated there will be an increased need for the feeding program this year.
The program provides a weekend’s worth of shelf-stable, nutritious, child-friendly food during the school year to children referred to UWNEMN by school staff. To qualify, students must be enrolled in the free or reduced cost lunch program and exhibit signs of chronic hunger.
According to UWNEMN Community Impact and Engagement Coordinator Michelle Lampton, community interest in volunteering at packing sessions for the Buddy Backpack program grows each year.
“We filled September sessions before the month even started,” Lampton said. “That kind of support is just incredible, and it shows that our region is truly united against childhood hunger.”
Many of the 211 volunteers this month were representing their workplaces, while others attended with friends and neighbors. Together, these volunteers have packed eight weeks’ worth of food for local children – 7,040 kits in total.
The local business community has also contributed to the Buddy Backpack program this month through drives and fundraisers. Specifically, Natural Harvest Food Co-Op in Virginia named Buddy Backpacks the recipient of September’s “change within reach” program, and American Bank branches are collecting hygiene products this month to distribute to Buddy Backpack recipients.
“I am so proud to see how this region stands up to take care of its children,” UWNEMN Executive Director Shelley Valentini said. “Volunteers and donors make Buddy Backpacks possible.”
Opportunities to support Buddy Backpacks continue next month with a fundraiser at Perkins Restaurant & Bakery in Mt. Iron where customers will be asked to donate $5 – which covers the cost of one entire Buddy Backpack weekend meal kit. Those who donate $5 will receive a coupon for $5 off their next purchase of $25 or more.