11/14/2019 - 4:03 PM - Hannah Raab

In 2018, 29.7 million children in the United States were provided with reduced-cost or free lunches daily. For many of these children, school lunches may be the only meals they eat. The question is What do they eat on the weekends? The last thing children should have to worry about when they go home for the weekend is having enough to eat. In our district alone, 46.86 percent of the students are approved to participate in the free or reduced-cost lunch program. Students are provided with nourishment during the week through the help of the free and reduced lunch program, but what are these kids eating when school provided lunches are not available?

To help combat the issue of hunger in our community, Kaye Erickson, the Prentice School District 4K-8 and Special Education Administrative Assistant, started The Fill-a-Belly Program. The idea for the name of the program came from a similar program called “Fill a Backpack.” Erickson liked the idea of the name, but was interested in filling a belly. This program works to help the kids who may not otherwise have enough food to eat on the weekends. When the children are getting enough to eat over the weekend, they can return to school Monday morning, well-nourished, focused, and ready to learn.

Erickson first got the idea for this program when a little boy in the school was not happy about Winter Break. While Erickson was excited about the thoughts of food, family, and gifts to come, she realized the boy would have none of these things. Over the break, she continued to think about him and what she could do to help. Understandably, it would be difficult for children to want to go home for a holiday break when they know they won’t receive regular meals. Realizing the situation some children were in, was the starting point for the Fill-a-Belly program.

She hopes that this program will be able to help families in tough situations. Erickson said, “I care about the kids in our school. I want each one to be successful. If they come to school not worried about food, maybe they can shift their attention to learning. Also, I hope that someday they will pay it forward and help someone in need because someone showed them kindness.” 

In the beginning of the year, a letter was sent home with all the students, asking if the family could benefit from additional food on the weekends. If they returned the form, the family would receive a backpack. The child will bring the backpack filled with food home on Friday and will then return the backpack on Monday for a refill for the next weekend. The contents of the backpack can vary with the availability and the donations. The backpack tries to help with two meals, a box of cereal, a can of fruit, and some snacks, per each child in the home. The children have been very thankful and appreciative of the backpacks they are receiving. The kids are not only thankful, but have said that they love the snacks they receive in the backpacks. Erickson said, “I do this for the kids. It makes me happy when they are happy.” To fill the backpacks weekly, it costs approximately five dollars per child, and the school is currently sending out twenty-eight backpacks weekly that provide food for fifty-two children. Kaye said that, “I would have been surprised [that kids are going hungry in our community] before I started working in the school, but now I am much more aware of our families’ needs. Many families just need a little extra help.”

The Fill-a-Belly program is privately funded through donations, grants, and fundraisers, as well as, being supported by some of the local churches in the communities. One of the local churches supporting the Fill-a-Belly program is the First Lutheran Church of Ogema. They have a collection box set up inside the church where members can drop off food donations. They also have collected special offerings to collect money to donate to the program. Two of the most recent fundraisers in the community included a booth selling t-shirts and wood crafts at the Christmas Tree Festival and a donation night at one of the Prentice Volleyball games. Erickson said, “The fundraisers have been wonderful. We live in a very generous community that truly cares about our children. Each time we are involved in something, more people come forward and want to help. We are so lucky to be in a small community where people care about one another.” The volleyball fundraiser was special to Erickson because she didn’t even know about it. The volleyball team organized the fundraiser on their own. Volleyball player, Kaelyn Isaacson, said, “A lot of times we when we think of people in need, we think of people outside the country. I realize that we are in an area where some people need help, and we can start by helping to make an impact in the lives of the people in our own area.” The money that the Fill-a-Belly program receives from donations is used to purchase food from Feed My People, which is located in Eau Claire. Feed My People is a local food bank that works to provide hunger-relief programs with with access to millions of pounds of low-cost foods. The cost-effective partnerships between Feed My People and hunger-relief programs help thousands of people each month across communities. The Feed My People program sends a semi to the school to deliver the food. Any of the food that has not been received in other ways, will then be privately purchased. 

Fill-a-Belly is currently receiving some wonderful help from within the school from clubs and organizations. Some members of the National Honor Society help to pack the backpacks and stock the shelves with food, as one example of volunteer help at school. Additionally, if anyone is interested in doing a fundraiser or putting up a donation box to help support the Fill-a-Belly program, please contact Kaye Erickson at the Prentice School District. The biggest way anyone can help the program is by giving monetary donations. Food donations are greatly appreciated, but surprisingly the food is much cheaper to purchase through Feed My People than it is for others to purchase and donate. Generous community donations are an essential way to support this beneficial program, which helps keep our local kids fed and prepares them to learn better-one backpack at a time.