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Liz Hansen and students

Elizabeth Hansen, center, packs raisins with her civics class students Tuesday for the Rusch Backpack Program, which next school year becomes the Portage Community Schools Backpack Program, serving hungry students in Rusch, John Muir, Woodridge and Endeavor elementary schools.

Programs providing weekend snacks for hungry elementary students in Portage have merged and been ensured of a more certain future thanks to expanding support.

Rusch Elementary School’s Backpack Program formed about a year and a half ago, inspiring community members to form the Portage Hunger Committee. The group started an initiative that provides weekend snacks for students in John Muir and Woodridge elementary schools in September.

Next school year the programs will join together as one — named the Portage Community Schools Backpack Program — and also provide weekend snacks for students in Endeavor Elementary.

The Portage School Board approved the program at its regular meeting Monday.

The backpack program will continue to seek partnerships, donations and grants for financial support, as well as volunteers to help pack the snacks, said program coordinator and high school social studies teacher Elizabeth Hansen. But the program Monday gained sustainability from the district with a $5,000 annual contribution from elementary school building budgets.

The specific breakdown of the $5,000 will be determined at a later date, Business Director Margaret Rudolph said in an email.

The total cost of the program is expected to cost about $15,000 per year, Hansen said.

Optional payroll deductions for district employees who support the Portage Community Schools Backpack Program will be offered next school year, similar to what the district does for the Portage Area United Way, Hansen said. Employees will be able to deduct $1, $2 or $5 from each paycheck.

About 125 students between the three schools receive healthy snacks on Fridays to get them through their weekends through an anonymous and voluntary service for students whose families sign up, Hansen said. She expects the program to serve 150 students between the four elementary schools when Endeavor is added to the mix.

Lewiston Elementary does not participate in the backpack program because the school doesn’t meet the criteria set by the program’s main food supplier, Second Harvest Food Bank, concerning low-income families, Hansen said. About 50 percent or more of a school’s population needs to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches to participate, which qualifies every elementary school except Lewiston.

“(Monday) was an outstanding gesture of buying into the program,” Hansen said.

She applauded the district’s official support and the many grants, individual and organizational donations and volunteers who got the ball rolling. The biggest financial contributors have included ALDI, which so far has provided two $5,000 grants; Alliant Energy Foundation, which donated $2,000; and Greater Portage Youth Education Foundation, which also provided $2,000.

“It takes a village,” Hansen said. “I’m really humbled by it.”

Other financial contributors reported by Hansen include Portage Rotary, Fort Winnebago Masonic Lodge No. 33, the John Muir Parent and Teacher Club, Bartels Middle School Student Council, Portage High School culinary arts students, the Endeavor PTO, Theresa Nagy, Ellie Shortreed, Barb Smith, Donna Hill, Jon and Judy Steinhaus, Bruce and Lisa Walker, and Sheri Bornick.

Hansen also thanked volunteer support from Tricia Pionke and Amanda Woodard of St. Vincent de Paul, the organization which orders the food; Caitlin Richardson from University of Wisconsin-Extension; and Dick and Judy Chilson.

Pionke, Woodard and Richardson will continue to help coordinate the backpack program, Hansen said.

Packing volunteers have included Dixie Deal, Amanda Thiele, other community volunteers and Portage High School students, like Hansen’s own civics students. Next school year’s packing will be split among high school organizations and community members, Hansen said.

Donors and interested volunteers should contact Hansen at 608-742-8545, ext. 1219.

“The Backpack Program is an excellent program that directly impacts the students in our community at home on weekends,” Rudolph said.

There’s room for the program to grow in the coming years, Hansen said. “We have plenty of families who don’t fill out the paperwork for a variety of reasons,” she said. The paperwork is sent home with students on several occasions during the school year. The paperwork is then sent to the school’s office, the participants otherwise are kept anonymous.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter