URBANA — A program that helps feed hungry children on the weekends is expanding into some communities where poverty may not be as apparent.
The Eastern Illinois Foodbank's BackPack Program is serving students this fall in Mahomet and Monticello, as well as several communities in Coles County.
Altogether, the total number of children getting free backpacks full of food every Friday has grown from 425 in 2010-11 to almost 700 this school year.
"People don't think about hunger in Mahomet," said food bank spokeswoman Cheryl Precious. "There's hunger in every community in the United States."
Begun in 2006, the BackPack Program promotes child nutrition with user-friendly snacks like granola bars, peanut butter and crackers, or easy-to-prepare canned ravioli or spaghetti dinners. The idea is to give kids healthy choices if their parents are working all weekend, or don't have enough money for snacks.
The program has now grown to 18 sites, including five schools in Champaign-Urbana. Other schools are in Mahomet, Monticello, Tuscola, Danville, Tolono, White Heath, Charleston, Mattoon, Ashmore, Humboldt and Kansas. The Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education also receives backpacks for homeless families in the county.
A total of 465 Champaign County children are signed up, including 150 at Garden Hills, where the Junior League partnered with the food bank to pilot the program five years ago, Precious said.
The program may expand again next year, she said.
"We've just got so much interest," she said.
In Monticello, food bank board member Dick Koch approached Principal Nancy Rosenbery at Washington School and she jumped at the idea.
"People have a perception of Monticello that it's a well-to-do town," Koch said, but there are plenty of eligible children.
About 13 percent of Monticello's students are eligible for free or subsidized lunch — less than Champaign's 50 percent, and a far cry from the 83 percent at Rosenbery's previous job in Lincoln, but still significant, she said.
"All schools have students that are in need. With the economic times that we're having, we have a lot of parents who have fallen on hard times," Rosenbery said Friday. "It's in our little neighborhoods around here, it's everywhere."
A total of 45 Monticello children are getting backpacks, 15 at each of the three grade schools. The Monticello Rotary Club agreed to sponsor the program financially, said Koch, a retired insurance executive and president of the club.
Parents have been "very thankful. Every little bit helps," Rosenbery said.
A national hunger study last spring by Feeding America concluded 79,000 people in East Central Illinois don't have enough to eat. About 15.5 percent of the 508,000 people in the 14-county region served by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank were classified as "food insecure," unable to get enough food on a regular basis. The rates ranged from 11.1 percent in Piatt County to 17.8 percent in Vermilion County, and Champaign County's was 16 percent.
"There is no single county in the United States that is not touched by food insecurity, and it can happen for a number of reasons — a short-term financial crisis, a medical emergency, somebody loses a job," Precious said. "Just because you live in a big house doesn't mean you are able to put food on the table at this moment in time."
The BackPack program is part of the food bank's Healthy Futures Initiative to increase children's access to healthy food. It costs about $175 per child for an entire school year, or about $122,500 this year, Precious said.