HOLYOKE – In a warehouse at 724 Main St. each Thursday afternoon, a group of individuals take time from their day to help assemble backpacks filled with nutritious food for students who may have limited access to provisions over the weekend.
Two years ago, the Holyoke Public Schools in collaboration with the Holyoke Food and Fitness Council, began a pilot program to provide a weekend food backpack for homeless students in grades K-12. At that time, the focus was on students who were living in the local hotels. Since hotel rooms typically have only a small refrigerator and a microwave, the backpacks were a resource to help sustain a child through the weekend.
During a recent interview with Reminder Publications, Jordanna O’Connell, who had served until recently as the schools’ homeless education liaison, noted that the program started with a distribution of 64 students and has grown this year to approximately 160 children.
“Due to the success of the program and the ongoing need, Sodexo, the lunch provider for the Holyoke Public Schools, and the Holyoke Food and Fitness Council, donated additional funds to sustain this program,” said O’Connell, adding that the Teen Board of Rachel’s Table also assists in raising funds and collecting food to support the program.
On the afternoon of May 7, several volunteers were stuffing backpacks in the Sodexo warehouse on Main Street with items ranging from black beans, rice, Quinoa milk and cereal, to macaroni and cheese, chicken soup, fruit drinks, oatmeal and snack treats.
“I like to help out and do this for the kids,” said Alaida Garcia, who works in the cafeteria of the Lawrence School.
Keri Pinard, chef and manager of dining and nutrition services for the schools, echoed those sentiments.
“These backpacks make sure kids get fed,” said Pinard, noting that the backpacks are distributed in a discreet way so a student does not feel uncomfortable receiving the extra support.
Chris Bones, who delivers meals for the school district, noted the backpacks “need to be done” and he “feels good” about being part of the process.
For Richard Leso, general manager, dining and nutrition services for the schools, the project is also personal.
“The program is important to me because as a father of three it is very upsetting to me that any child would have to worry about where their next meal will come from,” said Leso. “When I see so much hunger in a community that I am so lucky to be a part of, I have to do something.”
Leso noted that when school resumed last September, a student had asked him if the backpacks would be available for the school year.
“The student asked about the backpack because she said it was so good and she could share it with her brother,” said Leso.
Volunteers who also help out during the year include Kathy Renaud, a cook at Holyoke High School, and Nestalz Vega, a dining services driver.
Donations are always welcomed and inquiries can be made to Pinard at 244-6518 or Ken LePage, operations manager, dining and nutrition services for the schools, at 335-5523.