Backpack program off to a good start

Monday, October 11, 2010

Kristie Preddy, counselor at Cassville Elementary School, is once again heading up a nutrition program for select students that is supported primarily through private donations.

Through this program, students are encouraged to develop healthy eating habits and try various types of healthy foods that are packed into backpacks each Friday and sent home for the weekend.

"The backpacks are donated by the Cassville FBLA Chapter," Preddy said. "That way, any donations that I receive for the program are spent 100 percent on food."

The program is one developed by Preddy four years ago when she addressed teachers and administrators at a faculty meeting and said, "This is something we have to do."

Administered with complete confidentiality, students are chosen based on certain criteria to participate in the program. Parents are informed of the program through a letter of notification sent home with the first backpack. Unless the parents opt out of the nutrition program, students receive a backpack filled with non-perishable food items which is sent home each Friday.

"We can see a difference in the students that are in the program," Preddy said. "Both attendance and their attention to school work is dramatically improved. We also have fewer discipline issues."

Only Preddy knows the total number and identities of those participating in the program. The bags are coded in such a manner that no one knows who the recipient of each individual backpack may be.

"We've worked at developing this for over four years," Preddy said. "We have finally gotten it to where it nearly runs itself."

Volunteer moms come into the school on Friday mornings to pack food items into the backpacks. Bags are then discretely distributed to individual classrooms for the student to pick up on their way out at the end of the school day. Each backpack contains enough of the four basic food groups, proteins, dairy, grains and fruit, to meet the dietary recommendations of the food pyramid for the entire weekend.

"We have people who might be laid off from work, disabled, suffering an illness, have both parents working minimum wage jobs, or maybe a single parent household," Preddy said. "All of these economic circumstances are some of those surrounding the parents of students in the program."

Preddy said that the backpack program is one that "will continue at Cassville Primary School until the economy changes.

"While this is the fourth year that Cassville schools have benefitted from such a program, Preddy said that other schools in the state, and some across the nation, are calling to find out how to model their own programs after Cassville's model.

"I presented information on the program at a state counselor's meeting, and it has become somewhat of a mission," Preddy said.

Preddy said the program continually undergoes minor changes in an effort to make it self-sustaining, but that a very large part of its success is due to the generosity of civic organizations, churches and individuals who support her efforts.

Currently, there are 14 students participating in the nutrition program at the primary level, and Preddy expects that number to increase to around 20 by Christmas.

"The backpack program usually starts slow at the beginning of the year," Preddy said. "I have more students participating this year than in the past.

"It seems like the harder times get economically, the more members of the community check in to see that I have what I need," she continued.

One upcoming food drive will take place on Friday, Oct. 8 when the Cassville Wildcats take on the Carl Junction Bulldogs in gridiron play. Admission to the home football game for that evening will be non-perishable food items. Canned goods will be delivered to the United Methodist Church food pantry, and those suitable for the backpack program will be utilized there.

"The community has been really great in supporting this program," Preddy said "Cassville is wonderful. It's really good to know that the community is behind us."

Preddy said that donations of cash or food items are always appreciated.

Suitable food items for the backpack program include: tuna salad lunch kits; chicken salad lunch kits; Van Camp's Beanee Weenees; V-8 Fusion drinks; gallon or quart sized zip lock bags; shelf stable milk drink boxes; small bottled water; 100% juice boxes; single-serving cereal boxes; fruit cups; raisins; Vienna sausage; snack crackers; pudding cups; and rice krispy treats.

For more information on the backpack program, call Preddy at 847-4037.

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