By Janine Davis
Record Staff Writer
The storeroom at Wright City R-II West Elementary School is small and tightly organized, with barely enough aisle space for the two people who are busily pulling food from shelves not to collide into each other.
This is the hub of Wright City R-II’s Operation Backpack, where food items are stored for packing each week. The items go home with about 30 students to make sure they get some healthy food going into their bodies over the weekend.
“For a lot of kids, the two meals they receive at school are the only ones they’ll have during the week days, so we want to keep their needs met when they leave here on Friday,” said Lynn Gmeiner, who is the food service director for the district.
“We’re in the business of not letting kids go hungry,” Gmeiner likes to say.
With Carie Biggs, manager of the school cafeteria, Gmeiner is pulling jars of peanut butter, boxes of cereal, juice, macaroni and cheese and Pop Tarts along with fruit cups to go into bags for Friday distribution.
The program started two years ago. The goal was to ramp up slowly to be able to deliver on what leaders promised. Gmeiner said they did not want to be overly ambitious in enrolling students only to find they didn’t have enough food to meet demand.
The group currently provides meals for 28 students, with a goal of reaching 40.
Biggs says many families who could qualify for the program have not registered because they are unaware of it or have not been able to put in the paperwork. In the application, parents can specify any food allergies and be assured these food items will be avoided in their child’s sack.
Process Kept Confidential
As important as the food is to kids and families, it also is important to conduct distribution under the radar for complete confidentiality, say organizers.
Not even Gmeiner and Biggs have any idea which students receive the weekend food supplies. The information is kept highly confidential and is only known to school counselors who receive the applications.
When classes are emptied out Friday for recess or another activity such as music or gym, counselors discreetly place the food items in backpacks, so no one else knows.
Warrenton R-III also has an Operation Backback program.
Some estimates show that 25-31 percent of children in Missouri have inadequate food supplies. At Wright City schools, 53 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, up significantly from 40.9 percent in 2007-2008.
“The recession really hit hard,” said Gmeiner.
Originally, the backpack program was partially fueled by Operation Food Search, St. Louis’ largest distributor of food for the underfed. But in recent months, Operation Food Search has pulled back to focus on the immediate metropolitan area, leaving local schools to forage for donations.
Parent volunteer Allison Conn said Wright City has enlisted support from community volunteers, the WCHS Student Council, and other organizations who assist with food drives, but needs the fuller support of the community in keeping donations coming throughout the school year. Five dollars can provide a weekend’s worth of food for a child. Checks sent to the school’s district office should be made out to Wright City School District Foundation with “Operation Backback” noted and marked on the check.
“You just don’t know what your neighbors might be going through,” said Biggs. “Without this program, kids in our community go hungry on the weekends, and we’re afraid there are many still out there who need the help.”