Every week during the school year, Linette Freking and four of her co-workers at New Fashion Pork in Jackson gather around a host of food. But they’re not eating it – they’re packing it.
As the coordinator of the Jackson County Food 4 Kids Backpack Program, Freking organizes food distribution to local elementary schools so children won’t go hungry on weekends and during extended breaks.
Every Thursday, her team delivers packs of healthy, single- serve foods for two breakfasts, two lunches, three dinners and three snacks. The foods, such as macaroni and cheese, cereal, granola bars, fruit cups and soup, are both nutritious and enjoyed by children. Then, on Fridays, school personnel discreetly place the items in at-risk children’s backpacks.
“We are an affluent farm community, but there are a lot of food-insecure kids in Jackson County,” Freking says. “It’s estimated one in six children in the county don’t have adequate access to food. We wanted to do something to address this need.”
In 2014, New Fashion Pork started committing time and money to launch the program. Riverside Elementary was the first school to participate.
“Linette contacted us in the summer of 2014 to find out the need at our school,” Riverside Principal Joel Timmerman says. “We knew we had many children who could benefit from the backpack program, but we wanted to be sure we could implement it in a way that is confidential.”
That means only two or three people in the building, including Timmerman and school social worker Angie Hillmer, know which students receive meals. They go through the hallway when students aren’t present and slip food into backpacks.
“We have many hardworking families who don’t qualify for food assistance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the need,” Hillmer says. “The families are so thankful for the help, and the kids eagerly anticipate the additions to their backpacks on Fridays.”
Sixty-eight students from Riverside received meals and snacks in 2015. And with schools from Pleasantview, the Heron Lake-Okabena School District and Immanuel Lutheran now participating as well, more than 130 packs are distributed each week.
Food for Thought
How did New Fashion Pork decide to take on the backpack program sponsorship? The swine production company’s feed supplier was working on a similar program and encouraged customers to reach out in their own communities to assess the need.
“When we looked at starting this project, we thought we might have 10 children or so who would be in need,” Freking says. “We were surprised at the level of food insecurity in an area like southwest Minnesota, where we grow grain that feeds the whole country.”
New Fashion Pork’s commitment not only includes ordering the food, packing the meals and delivering them to the schools, it also includes paying for meals. The group reaches out to the community for financial support and volunteer groups to assist with packing.
With 40,000 meals provided during the school year, the price tag is nearly $50,000. That includes the costs of a grocery store voucher program that provides families access to food during extended school breaks, holidays and other days when school isn’t in session.
“Families can go into our partner grocery stores and choose from 20 or so items, like peanut butter, milk, cereal, fresh fruit, pork and other nutritious foods,” Freking says. “The store then charges us for those items.”
The Food 4 Kids Program makes a big difference, Timmerman says.
“Knowing our kids have these basic items gives our staff peace of mind, and it puts the kids in a better position to get off to a good start on Monday. We’re so grateful to New Fashion Pork for making this commitment to our community’s children and families,” he says.