Backpacks assure weekend calories


Jane Stueckemann

Natalie Kauffman, who coordinates the Cambria County Backpack Project, explains the assembly line that volunteers use to pack the backpacks each Monday night.

Jane Stueckemann, Features Editor

Every Monday night during the school year, volunteers meet in a basement to pack grocery bags that each contain six meals for some Cambria County school-aged children who may not know where their next meal is coming from.

According to Rachel Leister, a supplemental nutrition assistance program outreach coordinator, one in five children in Cambria County are food insecure.

“These students rely on schools to provide much of the daily nutrition they need to be successful in school. Over the weekends, however, school meals are not available. As a result, many students may not have their nutritional needs fulfilled,” Leister said.

The Cambria County Backpack Project began in 2013 as a way to change that. The project’s food pantry is in the basement of the Learning Lamp organization’s building at 2025 Bedford St., Johnstown.

Natalie Kauffman, who coordinates the project, said that Learning Lamp employees who were running after-school programs in Johnstown noticed that some children would hoard food and take it home in their backpacks to eat during the weekend.

“It made us very aware that this was an issue. There are a lot of programs during the week that kids can enroll in, but that weekend time slot was really where the big opportunity was,” Kauffman said.

The project was initially called the Johnstown Backpack Project because it served only children in the Greater Johnstown School District, but its name was changed in August after the members saw the need for a similar project in Ferndale, Westmont and Forest Hills school districts.

The project serves children in those four districts in addition to Black Lick School District.

“We try to quantify the link between childhood hunger and educational success, but it’s hard. If we can at least change the fact that there are kids going into school Monday morning hungry, then it’s worth it,” Kauffman said.

Ferndale Elementary Principal Rachelle Hrabosky said that the project falls in line with the school’s concern of the whole child.

“If we are not helping meet their basic needs, how can we ever help them to meet their educational needs?” Hrabosky said.

Kauffman said that the children are re-evaluated after three months and after six months of receiving the weekend food bags.

The project’s finances are held and managed through the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.

Kauffman said the project receives donated food from companies and organizations as well as monetary donations that they use to purchase discounted food from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

After the food is purchased and stocked in the pantry, a group of five or six volunteers go in Monday evenings to assemble the bags. Kauffman said the volunteers are often groups from churches and businesses.

Lead volunteer Marlene Singer, who works as a community health coordinator for Conemaugh Health System, said that the volunteers have a good system and can pack 300 food bags in less than an hour.

Once the bags are packed, they are placed in color-coded bins.