Feeding thousands of kids, one backpack at a time

By Walgreens Aug 09, 2022 • 6 min.

Like many parents across the country, Rena Hernandez struggles at times to feed her large family. Money is often tight, and putting food on the table isn’t as simple as ordering takeout. Fortunately, an innovative program is providing relief for Rena, who knows the weekend will bring meal deliveries in an unconventional package: a backpack.

That backpack is stuffed with food by staff at Island Harvest Food Bank, a hunger-relief organization based on Long Island, New York. Island Harvest’s Kids Weekend Backpack Feeding Program, which started 14 years ago, guarantees a weekly pack of food to as many as 1,500 students across 30 schools. Island Harvest receives a list of names from principals, teachers, social workers and even janitorial staff at dozens of schools across the island, identifying hundreds of students who come to school without enough food to eat.

“It could be children that needed food on the first day they enrolled, or children who are squirrelling away food to eat when they get home,” says Allison Puglia, chief programs and network officer at Island Harvest since 2013. “And once we get those names, we step in to ensure these children get what they need.”

Throughout the school year, each backpack participant receives a weekly bag stuffed with two breakfasts, two snacks and ingredients for a meal that can be shared with the entire family.

“When we first started, we gave two small individual meals like chili, or something where you could pop a top and heat it up,” explains Allison, “but we realized that children were not eating in a corner by themselves. Instead, they’d share with their family, so we started giving enough for the whole family to eat.”

Now each backpack includes cooking ingredients, such as rice and black beans or pasta with tomato sauce, and a newsletter featuring recipes and cooking instructions, too. The backpack program is funded through Feeding America, which receives dollars raised at Walgreens for Red Nose Day. In 2022, Walgreens raised over $37 million for Red Nose Day, helping to fund thousands of meals for kids in need through organizations like Island Harvest.

“We work with places that wrap their arms around these children,” says Allison. “We’ll do what it takes to make sure they receive the support they need.”

Rena and her children have received that support for the past two years. For the mother of five from Wyandanch, New York, the program has helped her family through difficult times.

“Some of the conversations my husband and I have when we can’t afford food for the seven of us is whether I should get a job,” says Rena. “But then we wouldn’t have anyone to put my children on the bus, and we wouldn’t be able to afford day care either.” Rena says the backpack program has helped keep her options open. “It alleviates the pressure.”

Rena and her family aren’t alone. Across Long Island, 1 in 4 adults face food insecurity. That totals up to 250,000 people on Long Island, approximately 79,000 of whom are children. And for youth, the difficulties don’t end with hunger.

Studies show that children who are hungry are more likely than their peers to act out in school and struggle with impaired cognitive learning. It can also lead to lack of stamina and increased illnesses.

“Kids cannot learn when they’re not nourished or eating enough,” says Allison. “By helping the kids have access to food, we’re also helping them have a moment to take a breath and enjoy life a little bit.”

Rena, for one, enjoys those moments. “My children love the cereal so much. They look forward to it every week,” she says. “Sometimes they even cry when we run out.”

The backpack initiative is just one of many Island Harvest programs that work to alleviate stress for families like Rena’s. Last year, Island Harvest served over 15 million meals and distributed more than 18 million pounds of healthy foods and products. The organization partnered with more than 30 Long Island schools and provided over 150,000 children and families with healthy foods through the backpack program, their School Pantry Program and Youth Produce Program.

Schools play an essential role in reaching these families. “The kids have a trusted place in the school,” says Allison. “Schools are so much more than just a learning environment. It’s a place of community.”

Supporting that community is essential to Island Harvest’s work. And Walgreens and Red Nose Day are committed to helping fund that work to help these communities thrive.