The Power of a Backpack

The Power of a Backpack

Many of us look forward to weekends. But families living with food insecurity struggle to make it through the two days with no free school breakfasts and lunches. See how Panera Bread® bakery-cafes are stepping in to help solve the problem

“I am happy we get food in our backpacks, because I don’t have much to eat at home.”
—Matthew, age 6

Like Matthew, hundreds of children in southwest Missouri might skip weekend meals. But through the Ozarks Food Harvest Weekend Backpack Program and with fundraising efforts from seven Panera Bread bakery-cafes, these at-risk children receive backpacks full of nutritious food every Friday. 

“From the teachers, parents, school nurses, counselors, and program administrators, we’ve been told that it’s a lifesaving program, and without Panera we wouldn’t be able to feed as many children as we do,” says Lindsey Neddenriep, public relations manager for Ozarks Food Harvest.  

Reaching 1,500 Kids

Every second Friday of the month for nearly two years, five Panera bakery-cafes in Springfield, one in Branson, and one in Joplin donate a portion of the sales from select products to the Weekend Backpack Program. The stores also host special events to raise money. 

The Weekend Backpack Program began in 2003 with a single school. Now Ozarks Food Harvest works with 37 schools in 12 southwest Missouri counties, serving about 1,500 children through the program. In 2012, the Panera bakery-cafes raised $6,000 for the program, and through June 2013, more than $3,000 has been donated. Every month, Ozarks Food Harvest receives a check from the bakery-cafes to buy foodstuffs for the backpacks and to help with distribution costs—such as gas for transportation.

“Without Panera’s support, we wouldn’t be able to continue to expand the program,” Neddenriep says. “We have a waiting list of schools, so there are more kids who need help. Since Panera became involved, we’ve grown dramatically.”

Feeding Families, Changing Lives

Volunteers assemble the backpacks, which offer enough food for six meals. Contents often include canned ravioli and mac-n-beef, tuna pouches, cereal, canned fruit and vegetables, applesauce, and milk. Each backpack also includes a hygiene kit with a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap.

After the backpacks are stuffed, they’re put on pallets and delivered to the participating schools. Ozarks Food Harvest’s staff nutritionist meets with school administrators at the beginning of the school year to share information about how to identify children who would benefit from the Weekend Backpack Program. 

“Panera has been a big part of making the program a success,” Neddenriep says. “School administrators have reported that by the end of the school year, kids participating in the program have an improved attendance rate and attitude. Some teachers have remarked about how the kids even look healthier.”

Want to Get Involved?

Ozarks Food Harvest prefers monetary donations for the Weekend Backpack Program because the food bank purchases specific items at a bulk, discounted rate. But you can also host a fund drive or hygiene-kit drive or donate your time—the food bank has volunteer opportunities on weekdays, evenings, and weekends for those 14 and older. Check out ozarksfoodharvest.org for more details.