Anita Faas

Anita Faas

It’s hard to imagine that there are children in our community who leave school on Fridays not knowing if there will be food for them to eat at home over the weekend.

According to the leading hunger-relief organization Feeding America, one in five – or 5,330 – children in Cambria County live with the uncertainty of where their next meal is coming from. For those children, meals at school get them through the week.

But what about the weekends?

The Johnstown Backpack Project formed in 2012 as a collaboration. Several youth-serving nonprofit organizations in the Johnstown area, most operating as out-of-school-time programs, served children in the Greater Johnstown School District. The need was undeniable – children stealing food, hoarding snacks and hiding food at home for safekeeping. With seed money from Lee Initiatives and a shared commitment to alleviate child hunger, the group held its first packing and distribution in March 2013.

Sadly, the demand for this critical weekend food assistance program didn’t lessen; it grew. Over the past six years, the outreach tripled the number of participants and expanded from the City of Johnstown to include parts of southern and central Cambria County. It also improved in its operations and efficiency.

Now called the Cambria County Backpack Project, the effort has participation based on referrals from adults, such as teachers, who observe and interact with children daily. Does a child exhibit symptoms of chronic hunger? Does he frequently complain of stomach aches or does she ask for seconds, not to eat, but to take home? Unlike some weekend feeding programs, eligibility is not based solely on income because there is simply not enough funding to provide weekend meals for every child that meets the standard income threshold for free breakfast and lunch at school.

In order to maximize limited resources, the project developed a referral, application and re-evaluation process that aims to identify and serve the children in greatest need.

Because childhood hunger is not bound by school district lines, it wasn’t long before administrators from neighboring schools and organizations sought help for children in their care.

In 2016, Ferndale Area School District joined along with Community Action Partnership of Cambria County, a provider of Head Start and Early Head Start.

The following year marked the addition of Westmont Hilltop, Forest Hills, and Blacklick Valley schools, as well as two preschool classrooms operated by Cambria County Child Development Corporation. Mom’s House, which provides free child care to single parents furthering their education, was an original partner and continues to refer children on a case-by-case basis today.

In 2018, Richland School District became a partner and began referring children from its elementary school. In all, the CCBP distributed 14,766 bags of food to 453 children over the course of the 2018-19 school year – an astounding 88,596 meals served to children who might otherwise have gone hungry.

How do we pay for all of this? A combination of grants, gifts and food donations make the program possible. A partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank enables the CCBP to fill a bag with six meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – for under $5. For every $1 donation, 84 cents goes directly to food purchases.

Operating costs are minimal, but managing the program is a full-time job. Each year, a new AmeriCorps member hosted by Community Foundation for the Alleghenies assumes the role as coordinator.

That helps to keep overhead low. Plus, the coordinator, food pantry and packing and distribution areas are housed free of charge at The Learning Lamp, a founding partner.

Truly a community-wide and largely volunteer effort, the CCBP could not meet the needs of the children we serve without the support of volunteers. Last year,

822 volunteers, young and old, logged

984 hours packing bags, moving inventory, cleaning and restocking shelves, and sorting food donations. Foodraisers conducted by individuals, businesses and community groups brought in 22,598 food items – a value of $11,303 in food that we did not have to purchase.

The takeaway from all of this is that children who might otherwise have gone to school hungry on Monday mornings started the day ready to learn because of the CCBP and its supporters. What’s more, the project connected 155 families with the government-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or other food resources and directed

20 parents/guardians to resources that could help them find work. While the food itself is an obvious benefit, the CCBP’s overall impact is far greater. 

So what are you doing this weekend?

Saturday marks the second annual Fight Childhood Hunger Food Truck Festival. The event, which runs from

3 to 7 p.m. at Peoples Natural Gas Park in Johnstown, promises a relaxing afternoon of good food, children’s activities and a lineup of great live music. For just $5 admission, you can literally feed a child – breakfast, lunch and dinner – for a weekend. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday. Can you?

Anita Faas is the former executive director of Lee Initiatives Inc. and longtime Cambria County Backpack Project volunteer.

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