Hello Everyone! My name is Stacy Coyle and over the last nine years I have served as the local coordinator for the Packing for the Weekend Program in Cannon Falls. For those of you not familiar with the Packing for the Weekend program, it provides food to in-need families over the weekend. About 20-25% of kids in the Cannon Falls schools are on free and reduced meals. For many kids, the school breakfast and lunch might be the only food they have in a day. So, what happens on the weekends when school is not in session? This program provides students with a backpack filled with breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack and fruit along with vouchers for milk and bread from Family Fare. Once a month, a voucher also goes home for a dozen eggs. The backpacks are delivered to the students on Friday, every week school is in session.
How did it start?
About nine years ago Maureen Nelson, the Executive Director of the United Way of Goodhue, Wabasha and Pierce Counties, brought the program to the Rotary Club of Cannon Falls. After hearing about the program, the Rotary decided to co-sponsor the program. The Cannon Falls Rotary has held several fundraisers for the program. Under their care, tens of thousands of dollars have been raised to support this program. Today, the program is primarily funded by the United Way. The Rotary continues to fund 10-20% of the program. The local program costs between $8,000 and $10,000 annually. The United Way administers the financial side of the program. They pay the bills and track the donations to the program.
Local Management of the Program
The Cannon Falls Rotary and I manage the day-to-day operations of the program. Rotarians meet the volunteers each week to pack the backpacks. School personnel deliver the backpacks to kids each week. School staff also help inform families they think would benefit from the program and serve as backup packing volunteers in the event someone is not able to pack the bags. We have five groups of volunteers that help pack the bags each week. They include the Knights of Columbus, Minnesota Honors Society students, Interact students, Cannon Equipment employees and Keith Meyers Financial employees.
One of my responsibilities is ordering food from Channel One Food Bank. This is the same food bank who supply the Cannon Falls Food Shelf. I also take care of deciding which food to send home each week, setting up the food for the volunteers and managing backpacks for families entering/exiting the program. I schedule/send reminders to the volunteers for packing and unload the food deliveries from Channel One. Recently, I have had two women come and help me unload food deliveries. It has been nice to have the help with the heavy lifting! 😊
Currently, we have 21 families participating in the program. There are four middle/high school families and 17 elementary school families. The 21 bags are reaching 53 kids. When the program first started we were sending home between 25 and 30 backpacks. Our numbers have dropped slightly, I think in part due to the better economy at least before recent events.
Because there is such a stigma around taking food home from school, we send the food home in a backpack for the students at the elementary school. At the middle/high school level, we chose to send the food home in duffle bags. The stigma seems harder for the older kids. Carrying two backpacks is more obvious than carrying a backpack and duffle bag – perhaps carrying sports equipment instead of food.
Also to ensure the families’ privacy, I do not know which families are enrolled in the program. The school’s social workers and counselors deal directly with the families. It is therefore a rare opportunity for me to receive feedback from the families. Occasionally, I will find a ‘Thank you’ card tucked in one of the backpacks as I am prepping it for the next week. The school social workers will also occasionally pass along a ‘Thank you’ received either in person or in a card.
Due to recent world events with emergence of the Covid-19 virus, Monday, March 16 was the last day students were in the school buildings. We were able to pack bags to send home with kids on Monday along with two weeks’ worth of vouchers. I had also embossed two more weeks of vouchers that will be sent home this week by school personnel. The decision has been made that as long as the school buildings are closed to outside people, we will not be packing backpacks. Channel One Food Bank has also suspended any deliveries for backpack programs. They are trying to focus their efforts on supporting the local food shelves in their service area.
Please note, the school is currently providing a breakfast and lunch to any students under the age of 18 with plans to continue as long as schools remain closed. These meals are available for pick up Monday through Friday at the elementary school building. A drive through is set up for the meals so no one needs to leave their vehicle to receive the meals.
How to help
The best and most cost effective method to help this program is to donate money. When I first started ordering food for the program, I was shocked at how far I could make a dollar stretch. As an example, a box of cereal priced at roughly $2.00 in the store, can often be purchased in a case of 12 boxes of cereal for the same amount.
That is not to say I wouldn’t accept canned goods. I have had people donate canned goods to the program and I am happy to receive them. I would caution, these are backpacks going home with very young kids is some instances so I cannot use any glass jars. The probability of breakage is too great. I also cannot accept any perishable food as I have no way to store it or send it home safely.
Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. I am always happy to answer any questions. Please everyone – stay home, stay safe and be healthy!