By Jim Newell
Review Staff Writer
It was a food assembly line, with a dozen volunteers cheerfully unloading pallets of food, slinging around trays of soup cans and other canned goods, and planning menus before stuffing the goods in bags to be shipped out.
But each volunteer knew that the labor would benefit local school children.
Lake Orion Blessings in Backpack received its first delivery for the year – 4,706 pounds of food – and packed hundreds of backpacks at the Community Education Resource Center (CERC) building on Sept. 28.
“That’s a lot, that’s our biggest pack for a first week,” said Kellie McDonald, chairperson of Blessings in a Backpack.
McDonald said that once the program begins every fall the requests begin to trickle in. She expects the group will provide more than 400 backpacks every weekend for Lake Orion students.
The Orion Blessings in a Backpack provided 300 bags of food per weekend – six meals to each student each weekend – during the school year last year.
Currently the program assists children in all seven Orion elementary schools, three middle schools and with the in-class snack program at the high school to help fight food insecurity in the community.
More than 1,500 students in the district are on the free/reduced lunch program and at risk for weekend food insecurity, according to the Blessings in a Backpack website.
Of those students, more than 300 depend on their weekend-back pack to get them to their next meal Monday morning.
“We work cooperatively with Meijer and they provide food at a really reasonable price,” McDonald said.
Scott Ockerman, a local business owner and board member of Blessing in a Backpack, said the plan was to pack for the entire month and deliver to schools twice in October.
During the first pack the group planned on stuffing 266 backpacks for students. “From what started at 45, which is a really cool thing,” Ockerman said, adding that when the program started four years ago the group only delivered to two elementary schools.
The group also has started a new high school initiative, with food drives completely funding the high school food pantry.
“We know the need is still there and it weighs on our hearts,” McDonald said. “The program is really geared toward the elementary school children, but we know the need doesn’t go away so we created the high school initiative to meet this need.”
When packing the food, volunteers have to take note of students’ allergies at a particular school and pack alternative meals for those students. “It just helps to make sure that when people pack the bags they know that this is for a student with allergies and to pack the non-traditional items,” said Angela Synder, co-chair of the group.
“100 percent of any donation goes back to the feeding the children in our schools,” McDonald said. “We are a 100 percent volunteer program.”
Blanche Tree Principal Jennifer Goethals, a member of the group, has seen the programs effects firsthand.
“We noticed the need 4-5 years ago, that families were struggling and asking for schools for help,” Goethals said. “So we put out a meeting call and we got this amazing group of parents to help.”
On April 10, 2012 the group started with two schools – Blanche Sims and Pine Tree.
“What was really important is to bring the awareness to the community,” Goethals said. “You live in an affluent community and you’re not always aware of the need that exists. Which is heartbreaking to think of how many people didn’t come to us”
Blanche Sims received 29 packs this week.
“Because we have such a wonderful and giving community, we’re unique in the fact that, unlike other Blessings in a Backpack groups, we provide for our middle school students, too,” Snyder said.
“Families know where to get support now, and they very much appreciate it,” Goethals said.
For more details on the program, to donate or to become a volunteer, visit blessingsinabackpacklakeorion.org.
By Jim Newell