Friday, April 16, 2010

BackPack Meals That Rock in Billings, Montana

On April 7th, my friend Virginia "Ginny" Mermel (left) received a richly deserved honor at a ceremony in the Montana Capitol. Nancy Schweitzer, Montana's First Lady (center), presented the award on behalf of the Montana Food Security Council. I nominated Ginny because of her tireless efforts to establish a weekend BackPack program for children in Billings Public Schools.

As chair of the School Health Advisory Committee, Ginny became aware of a serious problem in Billings. A significant number of students were eating free and reduced meals for breakfast and lunch at school but had very little to eat on weekends and school holidays. To remedy the problem, she obtained a grant through the Montana Food Bank Network to start a BackPack program for this school year. Ginny is now co-chair of the Billings BackPack program where she coordinates the distribution of meals to 550+ elementary students in 12 elementary schools; manages inventory and ordering; and works to sustain the program with funding for year 2 and beyond.

In all our important work to enhance the quality of school meals – to make them fresh, local, and even organic we must never forget that some children lack food at home. These children are grateful for any nourishing food over a weekend or school break. The meals sent home in the Billings BackPack program are, by necessity, shelf-stable and ready-to-eat without any additional preparation.

While these foods might not “make the cut” for the beautiful examples of School Meals That Rock, they rock because they exist. They rock because children no longer feel compelled to sneak food left by classmates – or dread weekends with empty cupboards.

I absolutely believe that we should advocate for funding the highest quality school meals possible – making them fresh and locally-sourced whenever we can. And, in the meantime, we must remember that a pack of ultra-pasteurized milk, a container of applesauce, and a can of spaghetti with meat sauce – while far from perfection – can have a powerful effect on children's nutrition and education.

Thanks to Ginny Mermel and the Billings BackPack Program hundreds of children can concentrate on their Friday afternoon classes and return to school on Monday morning ready for breakfast, but not ravenously hungry. That rocks in my book!

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