Throughout the school year, many children are sent off to school with a lunchbox full of food to get them through the day. Unfortunately, not all children get that luxury. The federal Free and Reduced Price Meal program assists students in need with food throughout the school week, but when the bell rings on Friday afternoon they are on their own until Monday morning.
When Elizabeth Wasserman and Kim Miller learned this was reality for some students at Palmetto Elementary, they decided to take action. That action comes as a blessing — tied up and sent off to students in their backpacks.
Blessings in a Backpack is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing elementary school students on the Free and Reduced Price Meal Program with a bag of food to take home every weekend throughout the school year.
Wasserman and Miller, both parents of former Palmetto Elementary students, brought the program to the Pinecrest school in 2013. In their second year as program coordinators, more than 60 kids are sent home each week with a bag of food. But, they don’t do it alone. Their kids have been on board from the very beginning.
“We wanted it to be more about our kids than about us,” said Wasserman. “We wanted it to be something that they really started and took ownership of. They started it from the ground up.”
Jesse, Sydney and Corey Miller and Nathan and Shelby Wasserman volunteer their time organizing the program and raising money to buy food. They raise the money through different events, including bake sales, mitzvah projects, and silent auctions to meet their yearly goal of $5,000.
Once a month, they get together with other volunteers and fill bags with readyto- eat foods like cereals, soups, juices and granola bars. The bags are then stored in the school cafeteria and distributed to participating students every Friday afternoon.
“It’s sad to know that when you were little your mom always packed a bag for lunch and you always went off and had enough food,” says Sydney. “You could go to the kitchen cabinet and take as much food as you needed. But these kids just can’t do that and it’s really good to know that you’re filling stomachs that maybe can’t be filled.”
Through the Blessings in a Backpack program, a child in need can be fed each weekend on the school calendar for just $80 per year. The program currently feeds more than 66,000 children in 45 different states. Thirty-eight schools participate in Florida, though only three of are in Miami- Dade County.
Over the summer, the United States Conference of Mayors declared Sept. 18 as National Blessings in a Backpack Day. Palmetto Elementary celebrated by assembling bags after school with the help of Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner and School Board Vice Chair Dr. Larry Feldman. Mayor Lerner applauded volunteers and faculty for “paying it forward,” while vowing to help expand the program into more schools.
“Now that I know how fabulous this program is, I’m going to make sure that I use my connections and my role as the president of Miami-Dade League of Cities so that next year there will be far more mayors involved,” said Lerner. “I assure you I will make sure that happen.”
This year, volunteers were able to surpass their fundraising goal by $2,000. The extra money will go toward adding healthier food to the bags and special gifts over the holidays.
Wasserman and Miller say the program at Palmetto Elementary continues to grow throughout the year and they hope to see involvement from other schools in the future.