September 8, 2015

Weekend Backpack Partnership Shows Real Results for Schenectady Schoolchildren

Members of the Weekend Backpack Partnership, which helps children and families meet their weekend nutritional needs by providing children with food to take home on Friday afternoons, today revealed evidence that the program is having a positive impact on the children who participate. This evidence comes just in time for the start of the new school year, as the program is about to be expanded to reach even more schoolchildren in Schenectady and to add an expanded educational component for families.

A year ago, several community organizations teamed up to expand the program from the small number of students who were then being served (135 in six elementary schools) to nearly 700 students in all 15 elementary schools in the Schenectady City School District. Today, the partners announced the following results:

  • Some 33 percent of students in the program improved their academic performance from the previous school year.
  • The attendance of participants went up by an average of six days over the course of the school year.
  • In comparison to other similar students, participating students had 26 percent fewer disciplinary referrals.

Denise Gonick, president and CEO of MVP Health Care, who convened the partners more than a year ago to support the fledgling program, said, “These results are proof that ensuring children have nutritious food to eat over the weekend makes a real difference in their performance at school.  MVP remains fully committed to supporting this program and is proud to work alongside these fine organizations who share our belief that no child should go hungry.”

Several community organizations have teamed up with the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, the City Mission of Schenectady and the Schenectady City School District to ensure the program’s success. Partners in the project raised funds to support the project and have recruited volunteers from across the region to help pack the bags and distribute them to area schools.  In addition to MVP Health Care, the partners are SEFCU, The Schenectady Foundation, the Schenectady City School Foundation, Price Chopper and Whitsons School Nutrition.

Between lunchtime on Friday and breakfast on Monday, many Schenectady schoolchildren are unsure of where their next full meal will come from, or even if there will be a meal.  Although the federal school breakfast and lunch program helps students during the week, many students are at risk of hunger on weekends. These students typically have lower grades and higher rates of absenteeism, and often exhibit behavioral problems as a result.

“It is estimated that 18 percent of children in our region don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That number is closer to 21 percent in Schenectady alone. Those numbers are staggering and just unacceptable. Together, we must fight hunger. Together, we can ensure that our children have better futures,” said Michael J. Castellana, president and CEO of SEFCU.

During the 2014 – 2015 school year, 670 students — 12 percent of the K-6 students in the Schenectady School District — participated in the program. This fall the program, which begins on October 9, will be expanded to include 800 students and will grow to 1,000 students by February 2016.  The expansion to 800 students will bring the percentage of participating district students to 13. In February 2016, 15.5 percent will participate.

“We are extremely grateful to our partners for not only collaborating to help ensure that our students have access to food and nutrition over the weekend, but for also raising awareness of food insecurity and the impact it has on learning,” said Laurence T. Spring, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District. “Food insecurity impairs the lives of children more than we can imagine. By putting a stop to weekend hunger, we are giving students a better chance to be educationally successful. We are already seeing a positive impact and are very pleased that even more students will benefit this school year.”

Through the Weekend Backpack Partnership, each Friday afternoon throughout the school year participating children are given food to help meet their weekend nutritional needs.  During the last school year, a total of 19,500 bags were distributed and included items such as breakfast bars, oatmeal packets, cereal, macaroni and cheese, soup, tuna, peanut butter and jelly, juice boxes, fresh fruits and canned vegetables, and a milk card to allow them to get a gallon of milk. All of that amounted to 248,000 pounds of food, and included 27,000 pounds of fresh produce.

As an extension of the project, this year a fruit and vegetable of the month program is being conducted in four elementary schools to introduce children to a variety fruits and vegetables. Volunteers will facilitate sessions with first and second grade classes in each of the schools. The selected fruit or vegetable of the month will be explained through a story and an activity. The volunteers will also bring prepared variations for the children to taste.

In addition, a more robust educational component will enhance material already being sent home with the food each week. Through a USDA and 21st Century grant, the partnership will share information on the importance of nutrition, healthy eating and living an active lifestyle with families at many school events throughout the year, such as open houses, science fairs, parent/teacher meetings, and other events when families typically gather at the schools.

The annual cost to provide food for each child in the Weekend Backpack Partnership is $200. The partners are hopeful that another $50,000 can be raised by October 1 to ensure that the program will be sustainable throughout the new school year and beyond.

“We are launching a campaign to raise the additional funds needed to expand the program to 1,000 children this year,” said Robert Carreau, executive director of The Schenectady Foundation. “Over the next four weeks we will urge community members to make financial contributions, as well as to volunteer their time.  With the contributions from the Foundation, MVP and SEFCU we can continue the program at its current level.  But we are counting on the generosity of the community to enable more children to be served.  As little as $25 enables us to provide weekend food for one child for a month.  It’s a great investment with big returns.”

During today’s event Castellana announced that SEFCU has made it easier for others in the community to help by securing the keyword “backpack” for texting donations.  Donors can text the word “backpack” to 91-999 to make an easy donation using a credit card.  The funds will go to the SEFCU Foundation and then 100 percent of the donated funds will be given to the Regional Food Bank in support of the Weekend Backpack Partnership.

The Weekend Backpack Partnership has received high marks from parents and teachers alike. A parent of a child who participates in the program said, “My husband and I both work but have a hard time making ends meet. The backpack program helps us supply some necessities and stretch our food budget. We really appreciate the help.”

A Schenectady City School District teacher applauded the program, saying, “I had a student that was violent and aggressive, especially around snack and lunch time. Once he became more secure knowing that he would get the bag, he relaxed and was able to enjoy school more.”

Another said, “My students are more alert on Mondays and are not as anxious on Fridays.”

Contributions to the Weekend Backpack Partnership can be made through The Schenectady Foundation at