The whys and the hows behind Southwest Florida’s Blessings in a Backpack
illustration by Mark A. Gilchrist
Because I have been personally familiar with Blessings in a Backpack for several years, I sometimes forget that many of you might not actually know what Blessings is.
You may have heard of it. You may have found yourself on the peripheral of a fun event centered around fundraising for the charity, but how many of you know what it’s all about? The Southwest Florida chapter of Blessings in a Backpack is not only a part of a larger, organized effort to feed hungry kids nation-wide, but also – in many ways – it’s setting the standard for the rest of the country.
Local entrepreneur, Scott Fischer, was golfing with his buddies in 2008, at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky when he first heard about Blessings in a Backpack and what they were attempting to do. Blessings founder, Stan Curtis, told Scott it was about feeding kids. He claimed that in America, 60-70% of kids in Title One schools have free or reduced lunches and that many of those kids don’t have enough to eat on the weekends. Further, these kids struggled in school due to a lack of nutrition. After examining the situation in Lee County, Scott found that an astounding 90% of the kids in Title One* schools received free or reduced lunches. Clearly, there was a great need for an organization like Blessings, so he assembled a group of local business people and started the Blessings in a Backpack program for Southwest Florida.
The way Scott explains his motivation is clear. “I feel there needs to be greater support for the youth in our marketplace. People ask me how we do it. For the many years we’ve been involved in it now, we’ve fundraised. Then they say well why do you do it. First of all there are kids out there that don’t eat. Secondly, what drives my passion for Blessing in a Backpack, these kids are going to be my potential employees some day. I’m investing in the long term element of our business community.”
“The business community, people like myself, should invest in the development of kids in the marketplace because they’re going to work for us!”
The first school in Southwest Florida to receive assistance from Blessings was Tice Elementary. In those early days, the board would literally go to places like Costco, buy food in bulk, and then – with the help of volunteers – pack red backpacks for the kids to take home on the weekends and return the following Monday. The teachers soon noticed attendance rates soaring on Mondays and Fridays. Parents began to get more involved. Behavior among the kids improved dramatically. Grades went up. At the end of that year, Tice had gone from a failing to a “C” school, which ultimately meant receiving better funding from the Federal Government. Scott says that the principal at Tice attributed the success of the Backpack program to their newfound status.
The Southwest Florida chapter also decided early on that to be successful and have a lasting impact, the program needed to be run like a business. When donor dollars come in, they are added to existing programs and a new one isn’t begun unless it can be funded for three years. When the national CEO of Blessings paid a visit to the SWFL branch a couple years ago and saw how well organized and efficient our local chapter was, she instituted similar policies nationwide. Now Chicago, Louisville, and Jacksonville are modeling our program, which is designed to meet different challenges in different locations, understanding that food logistics change from area to area. Executive Director of Blessings in a Backpack SWFL, Cecilia St. Arnold says, “We kind of pioneered the whole thing right here. Last year, nationally, we grew by 4000 children. 500 of them came from Southwest Florida. So we are doing something right.”
This past year in Lee County, close to 29,000 elementary students received free breakfast and lunch, and in Collier County that number was near 31,000. Considering these high numbers, how does Blessings decide when and where to assign resources? They begin with Title One schools and then rely on those schools’ social workers and administrators to narrow down the focus and really target the kids whose needs are greatest. As Cecilia explains it, “We go in and, say we have funding for 100 children, I personally don’t need to know who those children are. They’re determined on a school by school and family by family basis. They know where the fires are.” Additionally, the parents of potential recipients then receive a letter from Blessings and have the option to opt in or out of the program.
Though today the red backpacks have been replaced – with commercially packed, sealed plastic bags containing each kid’s food for their weekend – the concept itself remains unchanged. Blessings partners with Champion Food Service of Dayton, Ohio to assemble the packages. They are then shipped to Cysco warehouses in Florida, who then deliver directly to the schools at cost. Locally, Blessings has also gone to great lengths to acquire not just food, but better food. The menu changes weekly to keep it interesting, and nothing needs to be microwaved. This can come in handy, as in one local charter school, 65 out of the 100 students Blessings serves live with their parents in Salvation Army transitional housing – translation: hotels. They don’t even have kitchens. So the Bumble Bee chicken Salad is packed in a can that can’t cut them. The juice pack in the bag is 50% vegetable juice. The snacks and cereals are multigrain. The cheese is from Amish Country… Since she became Executive Director, Cecilia has focused on streamlining the distribution, leveraging relationships with donors and parties, and continuing to enhance the nutritional aspects of the program. She proudly states that, “In Florida, we are very, very lucky. We have one of the best food-logistics programs in the country for Blessings.”
“I want the people of Southwest Florida to know that 100% of their dollars stay right here. It’s a wonderful way to leave a thumbprint in your community.” -Cecilia St. Arnold
It’s astounding that all this can be accomplished for approximately $2.64 per week, per student. In Southwest Florida, this past school year, Blessings fed 3,200 children and provided 121,000 hunger-free weekends. By running an efficient and lean machine, it only costs about $100 to provide one school year of weekends (38-weeks) for one child. Each week, Southwest Florida children receive a sealed pre-pack containing 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, plus drink and snack. More and more kids are being not only raised here but born here. Many of them will indeed be our future entrepreneurs, workers, business men and women and even leaders. Scott is correct. If we are smart, we will do everything we can to make them the best people they can be. And it makes kids happy! You can help make a better future for underprivileged Southwest Florida children by donating to Blessings in a Backpack at www.BlessingsInSWFL.org or by mail at:
Blessings in a Backpack
P.O. Box 61402
Fort Myers, FL 33906
*Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.