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Standing Shoulder to Shoulder With Food Insecure Children 

The Idaho Foodbank's Backpack Program provides weekend meals for hungry kids

At the Idaho Foodbank's main building off Federal Way, cardboard boxes stretch up to the cool warehouse ceiling like canned-food canyons. Jackie Yarbrough, the foodbank's manager of agency relations and nutrition services, directs a group of volunteers in matching CitiGroup and Kohl's T-shirts like a seasoned tour guide.

"Hi guys! Welcome. Pick a station. One person for each food in the line," she says.

Volunteers settle in front of giant pallets of canned beef ravioli, cereal bars and fruit juice.

"We need a chocolate milk person," someone calls out from the chaos.

Yarbrough and Co. are assembling satchels containing a weekend's worth of calories for the Idaho Foodbank's Backpack Program.

"This will get one child through a weekend with six meals and two snacks. It's all nutritionally checked out," said Idaho Foodbank media director David Proctor. "That way, when they come back on Monday morning, they're ready to actually go to school."

The packaged meals are then distributed to low-income schools in districts across the state. Every Friday afternoon, 2,000 children tuck the edible packages into their backpacks, guaranteeing that they'll eat something during the weekend's long recess.

"We're trying to serve a punch of nutrition for the kids because these are children that we know during the school week and on weekends have lack of access to the food," said Yarbrough.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, food insecurity is defined as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways"--aka without scavenging or stealing.

Though the USDA notes that "children are usually protected from substantial reductions in food intake even in households with very low food security," that hasn't prevented an alarming number of Idaho children from going without food.

In mid-August, Feeding America released a study called Map the Meal Gap: Child Food Insecurity, which documents levels of food insecurity in all 50 states based on data from the 2009 Current Population Survey.

Shockingly the study shows that 23.4 percent, or one in four children younger than 18 in Idaho, are food insecure. That means 95,150 children statewide--20,150 children in Ada County alone--are at risk for hunger. According to the foodbank, this is a 43-percent increase since the last study of Idaho childhood food insecurity.

Seven years ago, the foodbank instituted its direct-service Backpack Program to protect this vulnerable population.

"This program is primarily targeted toward elementary-aged children ... Little ones are less likely to talk about being hungry at home. They have less access," explained Yarbrough. "A junior-high or a high-school kid, they're going to go eat at their buddy's house ... but little kids, they don't have the mobility. They're not going to be straying as far away from home."

Though canned beef ravioli and chocolate milk might not seem like the most nutritionally balanced foods to provide growing kids, Yarbrough explains that the foodbank's nutritionist has to work under a number of restrictions.

"The product has to be shelf stable, it can't be refrigerated, and it has to be easy for the child to open and consume," said Yarbrough. "That starts getting your food pool down to a fairly small level."

And, as foodbank president and CEO Karen Vauk explains, the meals have to be kid-friendly.

"It needs to be the kind of foods kids like ... It doesn't do any good to send food home with them if they're not going to eat it," said Vauk. "It also has to meet the weight restriction because the total weight of the backpack can't exceed a certain weight or it's too much for the little ones to carry."

The Idaho Foodbank purchases all of the items used in the Backpack Program in order to ensure nutritional quality and regular availability. Because hunger is such a nebulous condition, there's no rigid income guideline dictating which children can participate in the program--kids are selected on a case-by-case basis.

"What happens in schools is that those children are identified by the school counselor, the school social worker, the teacher or the lunch lady as being a child that probably needs extra food," said Vauk.

Though the Backpack Program currently serves 2,000 children, the Idaho Foodbank estimates that more than 7,000 children would benefit from the service.

"That's probably a conservative number," said Vauk. "We do hear from schools every school year ... They're asking if they can have more, but unfortunately, when we hit our limit, we have to tell them that we're not able to do it because our funding is depleted."

This article is part of an ongoing series looking at nutrition and food education in Idaho schools.

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