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Backpack program expands in Kenmare school

A trial program started almost three years ago as part of the Kenmare Food Pantry has grown and is now beginning its third year.

8/22/17 (Tue)

A trial program started almost three years ago as part of the Kenmare Food Pantry has grown and is now beginning its third year.

Jane Kalmbach, who operates the food pantry, said a program to fill students’ backpacks with a bag of food each weekend was something to try to see if it was needed and indeed it was.

She is happy to know how well the program is going, but sad at the same time that it is needed in this community.

However, she and Tahnee King have teamed up with Kenmare High School Principal Sarah Beckedahl to ensure the program operates properly and that it serves those for which it is intended.

Beckedahl, who has a unique position of recognizing some of the needs of her students, believes the need is actually greater than what is on paper.

“Not as many people sign up that should,” Beckedahl said. “Some choose not to participate. It might be pride, it might be paperwork, but this provides a valuable support system for these families. Some refuse the service and we will never infringe on those parental rights, but I think the number would be higher because some do opt out.”

Kalmbach, who has been a part of the food pantry a number of years, said some people are worried about discretion and others may think it’s like to old days of food stamps or government commodities in which everyone knew their status.

“I’ve done this 2 1/2 years now and I can’t tell you the names of more than five kids who have received it,” Kalmbach said. “Every package is done very discreetly.”

According to Beckedahl, it’s important to understand that this is a resource for the community and that there could be any number of reasons why it’s necessary.

It could be poverty, as the stereotype implies, but it could also be a family crisis of some kind, it could be children whose parents work shifts and aren’t at home during traditional meal times or some unusual circumstance that we can’t even imagine.

“The children who do receive it get a gift bag,” Beckedahl said. “But more than that, it shows that somebody cares and looks out for them. You can’t put a price on that kind of community support.”

She added that Kalmbach has done an outstanding job with the program and has gone to great lengths to secure grants to keep the program operating.

As an example, the bags are distributed each week, but once a month it will include a large package of peanut butter and jelly.

Every week there is a type of juice, and sometimes the makings of a hot meal like soup or macaroni and cheese. Hot oatmeal or cold cereal is included, as well as crackers, pretzels, beef jerky and sometimes string cheese. Dessert is even included in the form of Jello, pudding packs or fruit cups.

“We pack whatever keeps well,” Kalmbach said. “We can’t use refrigerated items, but bread and things like that are OK. We try to keep it healthy and light.”

Every week, Kalmbach said she, King and members of the student council and other volunteers, pack 34 bags so students’ nutrition needs are met for weekends when they are away from the school lunch program.

Beckedahl is tasked with dispersing the bags throughout the week. She said the package is mixed in with books or gym clothes that are given to students so nobody really knows who gets what.

“I report a number and Jane packs them along with the other volunteers,” Beckedahl said. “Jane’s efficiency is so important. She’s always doing research and shopping for healthy choices.”

Kalmbach added the football team has assisted in preparing the backpack items as well.

“With four kids and two adults, we can do this in 30 minutes,” she said. “They just know the number and nothing more and we package it.”

Beckedahl says it’s unfortunate the need is as great as it is, but it is good to have this conversation.

“It creates more kindness and understanding and it teaches about giving back,” she said. “And it’s Jane’s management and ability to see what the community needs and get the supplies to support it.”

Kalmbach, however, declined to take all the credit and once again named King and other volunteers who are instrumental in making the program successful. She added she has had tremendous financial support from the community.

The program is operated through the food pantry and although there are government guidelines for a national program, she chooses not to participate that way, admitting she and her volunteers can do it more efficiently on the local level and besides, Kalmbach says there is too much processed food in the government program.

“I want to see this program grow,” Kalmbach said. “We have funding, we have manpower and we have all the resources we want to expand it. So it’s important to get the word out.”

Designed mostly for weekends, Kalmbach’s crew “loads the packages” up when there is a long weekend, such as the three-day Labor Day weekend coming up.

There’s also longer breaks from school and that’s when food, which we all take for granted, can become an issue.

“We all get excited about the Christmas holiday but there are some who are terrified and won’t have enough food to eat,” Beckedahl said. “If the parents or grandparents are elderly, they sometimes have to choose between medications or food items. They have some tough choices in these blended families.”

Beckedahl encourages people to apply which ties into free and reduced-cost lunches in an indirect way.

She said first of all, that program isn’t utilized to it’s capacity and federal funding is based on numbers of students in the program, but it’s difficult to educate people on that portion of it.

Regardless of where it is or where it’s going, Beckedahl and Kalmbach both agree the backpack program will remain as discreet as it is now.

“We like it being a faceless program,” Beckedahl said. “It’s intertwined with what we do so nobody notices.”

Kalmbach added the program is open to home schooled kids with the only stipulation they need to apply through Beckedahl.

“We want people to understand this is a resource for the community,” Beckedahl said. “And it’s interesting how knowledgeable kids are about healthy foods." ...  Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!