March 07, 2013
by Laura Pochodylo ‘14
For some Galesburg schoolchildren, backpacks are carrying more than just books lately, thanks to a group of Knox College students who are committed to confronting the local hunger problem.
A Knox student club, Blessings in a Backpack, has forged a partnership among Knox students and the congregation of First Presbyterian Church, uniting the two groups in the mission to feed hungry schoolchildren in Galesburg.
"We raise money to feed children who (come from households with incomes that) are below the poverty line so they can have food to eat over the weekends. A lot of these kids go from Friday at lunch to Monday breakfast at school without eating," said Knox senior Linda Phan, who is club president.
"These kids are going days without food, and they're coming to school angry, upset, and just can't focus without food. We're trying to bridge that gap."
The Knox group, a chapter of the national Blessings in a Backpack organization that provides structure to the local efforts, feeds children on weekends throughout the school year at a cost of $80 per year, per child.
"That comes out to be a little more than $2 a weekend for a child," said Phan, a biology major from Chicago, Illinois. "People spend more than that in a day for coffee. If you're spending $5 a cup on coffee, you could have fed a child for two weekends with that cup of coffee."
The bags of food include kid-friendly items meant to be simple to prepare, as many of these children are home alone while their parents work and they need a way to feed themselves.
"We provide two breakfasts, two snacks, and two lunches. The hope is that parents will be home for dinner and prepare the kids a real meal," Phan said.
An average bag includes oatmeal, toaster pastries, applesauce, fruit snacks, ramen noodles, and some sort of soup.
The group started out with around seven student members feeding 35 schoolchildren each week. Now, the group has around 30 active participants and feeds about 160 children at Cooke and Steele elementary schools, the schools with the highest poverty rates in Galesburg.
Blessings in a Backpack plans to continue to grow.
Joel Estes, former assistant superintendent for Galesburg School District 205 and now a coordinator and instructor in Knox's Department of Educational Studies, serves as advisor to Blessings in a Backpack. As a former longtime school administrator, he is familiar with the prevalence of hunger in Galesburg from his experience working with local schoolchildren.
"I think there are a lot of people out in the community who don't understand the poverty that's here," Estes said. "Having spent 21 years in the school district, I've known for a long time about poor and hungry children. But I'm not sure the larger community or the Knox community knows this is what we're facing."
"We're currently serving 159 kids. Next year, we have a goal to jump to 175," said Estes. "In just the elementary schools in Galesburg, there are 1,400 kids on free and reduced lunch. To grow, we want to serve more kids. And to grow, it takes $80 a head. That's what it takes to get done."
The effort to grow and reach more children is supported by strong ties between the Knox College community and the Galesburg community. Estes and his students work closely with the Reverend David Parker and his congregation at First Presbyterian Church. Each week, students and church members pack the bags of food together.
"I think that's what is so important about it and what is so neat is that it's about a ‘We're in this together' kind of mentality," said Lindsey Morgan, a first-year student from Lincoln, Nebraska.
The group, which started about three years ago, meets each Wednesday to pack bags at the church, and the food is distributed in backpacks on Fridays at the schools. When Knox students go away on break for winter and spring, the congregants at First Presbyterian pick up the packing work, as the need for food continues.
In addition to packing, the students are busy drumming up community support with the First Presbyterian mission team helping them make connections. A recent presentation about Blessings in a Backpack at the Rotary Club produced "overwhelming" support, according to Estes.
Blessings in a Backpack buys food each week from HyVee on Main Street, which Estes believes is an important facet of the program.
"While we are helping our kids, we are paying one of our local HyVees for the food," Estes explained. "(The food) isn't coming from somewhere else. It's coming from right here. It's local as far as this business is concerned, and I think that's a big thing."
The group's entire budget for feeding children comes from locally raised funds.
Reverend Parker says the group has a larger purpose, too.
"As much as it is getting the word out and raising funds for this particular program, it's an educational point for us, too," Parker said. "It gives us an opportunity to educate the Knox students, educate everybody about the issues of poverty."
Both Morgan and Phan agree that experiencing these lessons of poverty and community effort first-hand have enhanced their educational experience at Knox.
Morgan plans to pursue a major in education, with either an anthropology-sociology or social service secondary focus, and she attributes some of that direction to her involvement with Blessings in a Backpack.
"It has really directed me in what I want to do and made that come to life more. It has given me a full picture," said Morgan.
Phan, who has minors in chemistry and social service, came to Knox intending to pursue a career in medicine. She also credits Blessings in a Backpack with influencing her future plans.
"I really love social work. I originally wanted to go to medical school, but right now I am looking at graduate schools for social work," Phan said. "That will be kind of a complete change, but it is still in human services."
Parker says situations like Morgan's and Phan's are somewhat common.
"When we go into college, as we're seeking out what it is we're going to study, we want to study something that's going to make a difference in this world and not just get a degree to put on our wall, but get this degree to do something to change lives," Parker said. "And if we can provide an opportunity for college kids to change lives right here and right now, that's what's exciting."
Estes agrees that it's important to integrate community service with a college education.
"One of the things I think we're really accomplishing is that Knox students are teaching us about what it is to have a giving heart and a life of service," Estes said.
"We have 30 (Knox students who volunteer) that are really dedicated to that idea and are growing as men and women in that idea. If you can come away from college with -- besides all the knowledge you learn in college and the degree and everything else -- with a giving heart, we've done something here."
Hungry children still remain at the forefront of the group, and Blessings in a Backpack members hope their presence in the community inspires awareness about poverty in the Galesburg community.
"We really do think poverty, kids being hungry in this town, is a community issue," Estes said.