In North Dakota’s McKenzie County, the bustling economic activity and employment opportunities of the oil patch beckon people from across the country.
But, sometimes, things don’t work out.
“People move here looking for a job or maybe they think they have a position lined up and it falls through. They come to the food pantry and don’t have anything,” explained Marcia Hellandsaas, NDSU Extension agent for McKenzie County. “We see a lot of people struggle financially. They don’t have enough food to feed their family.”
Hellandsaas had heard about the BackPack program through the Great Plains Food Bank, and felt it was a natural fit for her area. She and others in her community went to work to make it happen.
With the program, children receive backpacks on Fridays that are filled with healthy snacks and meals to ensure they receive appropriate nourishment during weekends. Among some of the more popular kid-friendly items are milk, juice boxes, granola bars, Mandarin oranges and individual servings of macaroni and cheese.
Hellandsaas is a chief organizer for the McKenzie County project by helping to get volunteers on board, contacting local school officials and distributing sign-up materials. In this project, volunteers discreetly put the food into participating children’s backpacks at the Watford City Elementary School. The first food items went home with children on Jan. 17.
According to Hellandsaas, the Watford City business community has rallied to the cause, noting MBI Energy Services and McKenzie Electric Cooperative Inc. are major contributors. She credits MBI’s Cassie Maki and Laura Sanford for their support and fundraising efforts.
“It sounded like a great way to help children who might not be getting enough to eat,” Maki said of the program. “The generosity of local businesses and Marcia’s hard work are really what has made this program possible. I really hope that this program will improve children’s lives and bring them happiness. Hopefully, the BackPack program will be the first step to ending child hunger in our community.”
The Great Plains Food Bank reports about 135 children in McKenzie County schools qualify for and rely on the federal free and reduced lunch program during the school year. The BackPack program is intended to fill the void on weekends.
Cathy Herbold, programs manager at the Great Plains Food Bank, said the food, usually enough for six meals and four snacks, is distributed in disposable plastic bags and placed in the students’ backpacks or lockers.
“Many of the students may not have enough or any food options on the weekends. That is where the BackPack program becomes so important,” Herbold said. “Our role is not to ask why a child is hungry but to simply provide food so they can lead a better life. Teachers, parents and students have all stated what a difference this program can make. Students are better able to concentrate on Monday mornings, they miss less school and they report less illness.”
The effort in McKenzie County joins similar projects in Dickinson, Walhalla, Northern Cass and Mapleton, which also were slated to begin in January. The Missouri Slope United Way of Bismarck, too, is organizing a BackPack program.
BackPack programs are currently in place in Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo and 24 communities throughout North Dakota.
The goal is to address an important issue.
“Our office tries to connect people to services they can use,” Hellandsaas said of the NDSU Extension Service’s commitment to service and building collaborations with residents. “We have a wonderful community here, and we’ve received great support to help the people who have unmet needs.”
More information on the Great Plains Food Bank’s BackPack program can be found atwww.greatplainsfoodbank.org/programs/backpack_program.html.