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Backpack Meals program in Billings asking for help amid rising costs, demand

Backpack meals
Posted at 5:18 PM, Feb 08, 2022

BILLINGS — It’s one of the Billings community's invisible problems: children going hungry. Even with federal COVID-19 grants providing free breakfast and lunch to all elementary school students, it's simply not enough.

“I’ll have kids come up to me and say, ‘I need one of those. We don’t have much food at home,'" said Caitlin Hraban, the McKinley Elementary School counselor.

Hraban sees the warning signs every day in the McKinley cafeteria.

"Are they hungry? Are they asking for seconds? Does it seems like they want to take the extras with them?" Hraban asks.

Kids are eating at school, but don’t know if they’ll get to at home. So about a decade ago, a woman named Ginny Mermel and the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools started Backpack Meals, a 100% donation-funded program that sends food home to kids on weekends and during school breaks. In the two years since COVID, the need has only gone up.

"And now, we’ve got quarantines. We've got frequent absences. We've got all of these other factors coming into play," said Kelly McCandless, the Education Foundation's executive director. "So we've not only seen an increase in need but a more complex method to address the demand."

Backpack meals sign
A sign inside Billings Senior High School touts 406 Jersey Day to benefit the Backpack Meals program.

Right now, the program feeds about 275 kids every week, though that number is likely higher in Hraban’s experience.

"What I’m always struck by is the number of kids who come to talk to me and explain it’s not just them at home," she said. "They have younger siblings in need at home, or older siblings."

The program also helps 300 more middle and high schoolers with teen pantries - private, self-access areas in each school that stock food, clothing, basically any essential. A year ago, each backpack meal cost $4.25 to put together. Now, it’s $5.25. That dollar might not look like much, but it means over $14,000 a year just for the elementary kids, and it’s likely double that when you factor in the pantries.

"We try to be as thrifty as we can," McCandless said. "We're constantly waiting for the peanut butter to go on sale.

"That's a huge increase for a service you’re providing that’s 100% donor-led."

Backpack meals graphic

The program’s main fundraiser, 406 Jersey Day, where everyone is encouraged to wear their favorite sports gear, is Friday. People can donate via text, web, or simply by sending a check to the Education Foundation.

"Ninety-eight percent of what we get goes directly to purchasing food," McCandless said.

Right now, every cent is needed.

"We are starting to get requests from half a dozen elementary schools wanting their own pantries because they have students in their schools with needs beyond the breakfast and lunch we're providing," she said. "They don't have any evening meals."

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that it truly takes a village.