United Way of Porter County’s Backpacks United provides meals to students in need

United Way of Porter County’s Backpacks United provides meals to students in need

When the COVID-19 pandemic pushed schools online for e-learning, it wasn’t just the curriculum and how students learned that needed to be addressed. When United Way of Porter County began their annual conversations with school districts at the beginning of the fall semester, a common obstacle that students were facing was food insecurity. 

“So much of our work at United Way of Porter County is finding immediate needs and figuring out what needs to happen to resolve them,” said Kim Olesker, President & CEO. “We found a common issue of how hard it was to ensure that kids had access to food at home.”

During a normal school year, many students depend on school for meals during the week, but when the weekends come along, the question of where they will get their meals hangs over their heads. This issue became more dire as the pandemic continued to affect families financially, causing more and more students to need weekend meals.

“Valparaiso Community Schools has had a backpack and snacks program for years and supported an average of 200 students a year,” Kim said. “At the start of this semester, they had 400 requests and it was only week five.”

United Way of Porter County was aware of how food insecurity affects different communities in different ways. While one school district like Valparaiso doubled their meal program, others saw an even more drastic increase.

“We made this part of our discussion with every school district: Do you have a meal program? What are you seeing? What are the challenges you’re facing? What do you do for parents who have to work and meal pick-up is at the school in the middle of the day?” Kim said. “What we found quickly is that the need was universal, and we couldn’t let these kids go home on the weekends worrying that their next meal is going to be Monday morning at school.”

United Way of Porter County then jumped into action, reaching out to partners to see how the community could help. United Way of Porter County began to raise money to support the increase in demand in some districts and also add programs others. 

“Our work has opened up the conversation of food insecurity in the entire family unit,” Kim said. “We didn’t want to send students home with food that didn’t meet the needs of the whole family. We didn’t want the kids to carry that burden.”

United Way of Porter County is working with their partners to ensure that not only backpacks are provided to kids, but also that food boxes are available to the rest of the family based on their needs.

“We have been able to raise funds on the county level to support a variety of programs,” Kim said. “One major contribution was from the Anderson Foundation, who I have had many productive conversations with, and will support food resources for students, families and seniors through our partnership with the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana.”

What the pandemic has made clear is not only how prevalent this issue is in any community, but also that it can happen to anyone.

“What we have learned is that a lot of people weren’t prepared for a pandemic, so we are fortunate to be in a very generous community,” Kim said. “So, what we’ve done is leveraged the power of our network and found the best answer with the most nutritional value at the lowest price point so that we can feed more people.”

To help provide meals to your neighbors, give at unitedwaypc.org/donate.