Volunteers who work to put together Blessings in a Backpack food packages for students in Royal Oak schools are surprised when they learn how many children qualify for the program.
“We were shocked,” said Shelley Lake, president of the Royal Oak Rotary Club, which funds and organizes the Blessings in a Backpack program locally. “Last year we made a concerted effort to get more people into the program.”
Blessings in a Backpack is a national program that supplies meals to 92,000 students each weekend of the school year.
The food in Royal Oak goes to children who qualify for free or reduced-prices lunches at school.
“We used to have kids who would save their breakfast from school and take it home to a sibling,” Lake said. “That’s so sad.”
There are about 900 students in Royal Oak schools who qualify for the weekend meals. Last year, 231 students signed up for the weekend food supplies. Sometimes, fear of being mocked by their peers keeps children from having their parents sign up for the supplemental food.
“I think there can be a stigma for people asking for help,” Lake said. “They don’t want to be embarrassed and come forward and ask for help.”
Lake led the effort to bring the Blessings in a Backpack program to Royal Oak schools five years ago. They started out only in the elementary schools, but since then have expanded into all the schools in the district.
A core group of Rotary Club volunteers join with others to pack up a weekend’s worth of food every Wednesday in a room at the Royal Oak Schools administration building. They use plastic bags instead of backpacks and fill them with everything from juice boxes to canned soup and tuna fish to instant oatmeal, macaroni and cheese.
Teachers on Fridays receive the bags of food and discreetly disburse them to the students who need them.
“The teachers write to us and tell us the students have better attention spans in class when they are properly nourished and their attendance is better,” Lake said.
The Rotary Club raises the roughly $20,000 annually it takes to buy the food from Meijer, a national sponsor, at a deep discount.