Project to help hungry schoolkids to expand this fall in Champaign, Vermilion counties

Project to help hungry schoolkids to expand this fall in Champaign, Vermilion counties

URBANA – A backpack project for hungry schoolchildren will expand to six more schools in Champaign and Vermilion counties this fall, thanks to two major donations to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.

The food bank will get a $35,000 check next week from the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana, the organization's largest donation to date for the 5-year-old BackPack Buddies program.

On top of a $54,000 contribution from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois last fall, the donation will allow the food bank to increase the number of children served by more than 60 percent in 2010-11, officials said.

The program combats hunger by providing weekend groceries for children, distributed in backpacks on Friday afternoons, to ensure students return to school on Mondays fed and ready to learn.

Founded by the Junior League as a pilot project, it provided food to 260 children every week during the 2009-2010 school year, divided among five Champaign-Urbana elementary schools, Rantoul city schools and North Ward Elementary School in Tuscola.

This coming year, it will serve 425 students a week at 11 sites: Garden Hills and Carrie Busey schools in Champaign; Prairie, Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King schools in Urbana; Rantoul city schools; North Ward in Tuscola; Unity West Elementary in Tolono; East Park Elementary in Danville; Sangamon Elementary in Mahomet; and Honeywell Grade Center in Hoopeston.

The food bank supplies the food, and Junior League volunteers put together 10,000-plus bags of food for schools to distribute throughout the year.

The Junior League has supported the program with $15,000 to $20,000 each year, but this year increased the number of corporate backers, said President Jen Parastaran. It also featured the BackPack Buddies program during its Festival of Trees fundraiser in December.

"Most of our projects are focused on helping kids in the community," Parastaran said. "We look forward to adding more and more children to this program. There's a huge need still unmet."

The Junior League's support helped the food bank leverage other donations, including the $54,000 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield's Childhood Health and Wellness Initiative, said Cheryl Precious, director of marketing and development for the food bank.

"We had a lot of data we could point to, success stories," she said. "They generally don't give grants of this size. We're hoping that is a partnership that's going to continue in future years."

Other community organizations have donated to the BackPack Buddies in previous years, including Orange Krush and the Urbana Rotary, which last year pledged $22,500 over three years for backpacks at Prairie School.

The food bank wants to expand the program beyond Champaign-Urbana because "there's a lot of need, frankly, in other communities," Precious said.

"They tend to have less infrastructure to fight hunger available to them. Champaign-Urbana is pretty ripe with food pantries and soup kitchens, whereas in other communities like Danville and Tuscola, it's just tougher for families to find food, particularly on weekends," she said.

Community organizations in Tuscola raised their own money to participate in BackPack Buddies last year, she noted.

In Rantoul, the food is distributed to 45 homeless students through the Regional Office of Education for Champaign and Ford Counties. Assistant Superintendent Barb Daly said her office documented 422 homeless children in Champaign-Ford public schools this past school year.

"The families have told us that they really appreciate it," she said. "When you're facing homelessness, your resources are very limited. All the food is highly nutritious, and kid-friendly. I think it's a wonderful thing."