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Blessings in a Backpack: Meal program seeks sponsors

By Staff | Jul 3, 2019

With Blessings in a Backpack planning to increase the number of children it helps in Southwest Florida, the meal program is reaching out to the community for support.

When school starts in August, Blessings in a Backpack SWFL has enough funding to feed 4,500 students every weekend during the school year. This year the program expanded to at least two new schools.

“We have grown tremendously,” said Executive Director Cecilia St. Arnold. “You wouldn’t believe how many more are on a waiting list. We could probably feed close to 50-to-60,000 elementary school kids if we have the funding. There are a lot of food insufficient children in Southwest Florida.”

The Southwest Florida Chapter is part of a national organization that began 10 years ago.

The local chapter is nine years old.

Its founder, Scott Fischer, who used to own a Harley Davidson dealership, was in Louisville when the discussion took place that “we need to take care of our kids in our own community.”

“A bunch of businessmen formed a board and put together a great business model and it kind of grew. They brought me in five years ago to run it for them because they were volunteering their time,” St. Arnold said.

When she started, the chapter they were feeding 2,300 kids.

Blessings in a Backpack supplements the free breakfast and lunch programs children receive during the school day by providing weekend meals so the children do not have to go 65 hours without nutrition.

They have modeled what they send home along USDA guidelines.

The Southwest Florida chapter works with a Kellogg’s dietician to put together the healthiest food options. Food choices include multi-grain, low sugar and sodium options.

The child receives two breakfasts, two lunches, snacks and drinks.

“Nothing needs to be heated or microwaved,” St. Arnold said. “It’s easy for the kids to eat, nutritious, healthy and tastes good. We test all of our new menus out. If we are not going to eat it, we don’t expect the kids to eat it.”

A new addition this year is StarKist honey BBQ tuna, which she said is just phenomenal.

“It’s just good stuff. Great protein,” St. Arnold said.

Blessings in a Backpack is trying to provide food options that will support brain and bone development. The goal is to provide backpacks full of food, so the child will not come back to school on Monday depleted from the good calories they received during the week with free breakfast and lunch.

“We have kids that live like this in Southwest Florida, not eating for 65 hours,” she said.

The community can provide assistance to Blessings in a Backpack through monetary donations. For just a $100 tax-deductible donation, a student can be fed for an entire school year.

St. Arnold said donors can make monthly payments of $10, so they do not feel the strain of $100 all at once.

“All of the money raised here, stays here. The money stays local, local. We are going to feed kids in Lehigh, Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Naples . . . feed the kids in our own backyard,” she said. “We get 90 percent of our funding from gated communities and golf communities.”

They have some donors who feed an entire school.

Donations can be made at www.blessingsinswfl.org, or through a check in the mail at P.O. Box 61402 Fort Myers, FL 33906.

Blessings in a Backpack is important to Southwest Florida because they have a lot of “working poor” who are scrapping by, making only $10 to $12 an hour, while paying high rent and other necessities.

“Probably 50 percent of our children fall into that category,” St. Arnold said. “People just don’t understand that, the economics of our area. A lot of people don’t make those professional-level wages.”

Hungry children should not be that big of a problem in this country, she said.

“We want to make our community better. If they go to school and are not hungry, they are going to sit there and learn and be better students,” St. Arnold said.

The Blessings in a Backpack program typically begins the second week of school when they have an accurate headcount.

“We want to make sure we don’t miss a kid,” she said. “That extra week that we don’t start, they get the food to take home over a break. It never goes to waste.”