Weekend snacks are now available to students in all five Portage elementary schools, and the program’s expansion won’t stop there.

Coordinator Elizabeth Hansen said the Portage Community School District’s Backpack Program is likely to also provide snacks for Bartels Middle School students beginning in 2019-20 after the program had incorporated the elementary schools of Endeavor and Lewiston earlier this school year.

The program started at Rusch Elementary School about 2½ years ago and inspired community members to form the Portage Hunger Committee, which in 2017-18 expanded the local snack offerings to John Muir and Woodridge elementary schools.

In May, the school district announced that it would take over the program and provide $5,000 to it annually. Hansen, who teaches social studies at Portage High School and recently earned a Herb Kohl Foundation teacher fellowship for her accomplishments including this program, has led it ever since.

“Nobody gets turned down and there are no qualifiers,” she said of the program that’s also currently funded by about $4,000 in staff payroll deductions and miscellaneous donations from individuals and community groups, including $5,000 in grants from Aldi and $2,750 from the Elks Lodge.

The Backpack Program provides snacks to about 150 students in the elementary schools and should involve about 200 once Bartels is added in September, Hansen said. The total cost of the program for 2018-19 is about $13,000, she estimated, and should be somewhere between $15,000 and $18,000 with Bartels included.

“There’s no question this program is sustainable,” Hansen said of adding schools, “and that’s because the community has really bought into the idea that kids who aren’t hungry see more success in the classroom.”

Rusch and Lewiston Principal Jason Meyer said he’s one among many in the school district and community impressed by the program’s continued growth under Hansen’s leadership.

“It’s nice knowing that the kids who do need something for the weekend will have something to eat,” Meyer said of the program that added Endeavor at the beginning of the school year and then brought in Lewiston at the start of the second semester. “I haven’t heard one complaint about the program from family or staff or anyone, and that’s just so rare (considering its size).

“There are so many things to work out with a program like this, and Mrs. Hansen is very good at what she does.”

Volunteers pack the snacks three times per month on Wednesday evenings, Hansen said, involving service organizations and student groups like Future Business Leaders of America, HOSA (Future Health Professionals), the high school softball team and many others throughout the year.

The district’s intellectually disabled students transport the snacks to Woodridge, Rusch and John Muir, while snacks for students at Lewiston and Endeavor get sent via the district’s interschool mail system.

Snacks provided weekly to students include two breakfasts, two dinners, two drinks, two to four snack items including crackers, protein bars, fruit and vegetable cups and granola bars and then a jar of peanut butter is provided once per month.

Only a school’s office personnel knows which students receive the snacks, Hansen said. The program is otherwise completely anonymous.

“It’s awesome knowing we have a staff and community that cares enough to do this,” Portage High School junior Peyton Mueller said as she and four other students helped pack the snacks Wednesday.

Mueller decided to help out recently after she saw that the packing efforts would be doubled to account for spring break, which started Monday in Portage.

“Seeing the numbers get doubled just made me stop and think about how big of a need there really is — it’s just crazy,” she said of the numbers that were written on Hansen’s chalkboard at the high school.

Nearly 60 students at Rusch Elementary would receive snacks for spring break, and that required volunteers to pack around 120 bags for just for Rusch alone, Hansen and Mueller noted. Rusch typically has the highest participation among the elementary schools each week, followed by John Muir at about 50 students per week, Woodridge at 18, Endeavor at 15 and Lewiston at seven.

“It feels good,” Meuller said. “Even though I don’t personally need the help, I can only imagine what that’d be like to need food.

“It’s really not even that hard to help (the program). I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to.”

For information about the program including how to donate and help with the packing, contact Hansen at 608-742-8545.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.

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