Feeding a need: Backpack program provides weekend food supplies for students 

  • Paul Davis and his wife, Jan, right, of Easthampton, prepare packages of food with the help of Shelley March, left, who is the founder of Pioneer Valley Power Packs, on Dec. 4 at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Paul Davis and his wife, Jan, center, of Easthampton, prepare packages of food with the help of Shelley March, right, who is the founder of Pioneer Valley Power Packs, on Dec. 4 at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/22/2019 11:42:58 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Nearly 20 percent of children at Maple Elementary School are taking backpacks full of food home each weekend to help them to eat, and the founder of the program supplying them expects this number to only grow.

Pioneer Valley Power Packs is a program being piloted at the neighborhood school this year. It’s the brainchild of Shelley March whose wife, Martha Morgan, teaches first grade at the school.

“Each Friday we deliver to the school enough food for the weekend, two breakfasts, two lunches and two snacks,” said March. “Repeat and rewind every week until the end of the school year, minus holiday weeks.”

The food is distributed anonymously by teachers every week, who place it in the backpacks of the children who have signed up. If a child doesn’t have a backpack of their own, the program provides them with one.

“It basically provides enough meals to get through the weekend,” she said.

The menu rotates and includes food items like canned soups, fruit cups and oatmeal. There is also a special rotating menu that can be adjusted to accommodate students’ dietary needs based on religion, lifestyle preferences and allergies.

“We are ensuring that it fits their diet,” March said. “Which is huge for us.”

The annex building of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church is where volunteers put together the packages of food.

March said that the church already had outreach programs, and it had available space. She detailed meeting with the church’s priest, Rev. Michael Bullock.

“I met with him and he said, ‘We have a common mission,’” she said.

Paul and Jan Davis, parishioners at St. Philip’s, were putting together packages of food for Power Packs for the first time, which they heard about through their church.

“It’s like organized chaos, it’s fun,” said Paul Davis.

To qualify for the program, students must be eligible for either free or discounted meals at school. At Maple Elementary, more than 50 percent of the students are eligible, so all students who go there get to eat meals at the school for free.

“That’s the need that we’re dealing with,” March said. “At one school only in Easthampton.”

March, who lives in Northampton and works at Williams College, has a history of volunteering with food banks, although most of that work has been on the West Coast. In October 2017, she learned about a weekend backpack food program in New Hampshire in a magazine she was reading while on a flight going to California. After determining that there was a need for such a program locally, she founded Pioneer Valley Power Packs that same month. The Maple Elementary School pilot is the organization’s first program.

In order to get food to distribute, March got the nonprofit to become a member agency of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Pioneer Valley Power Packs also gets private donations of food, purchases food through money from the Feed the Kids golf tournament and utilizes gift cards and grants.

Originally, the pilot was designed to serve 20 students. However, the demand exceeded this number and resulted in its launch being delayed until November.

As of late December, 54 students were using the program, out of approximately 300 students at Maple Elementary School. March said she expects a quarter to a third of the students to utilize the program by year’s end.

Although March hasn’t heard directly from families using the program yet, she has had positive feedback relayed to her from teachers and the Easthampton Community Center.

“They’re very happy,” she said.

She also said that she will be collecting forms from families about the program throughout the school year, to get feedback on it.

In the next school year, March said she would like to expand the program to Pepin Elementary School in Easthampton, and is looking to pilot the program in Northampton as well.

Holyoke and Springfield already have weekend backpack food programs for students.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.


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