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August 21, 2012 10:07 PM

Backing The BackPack Program

sioux falls, sd

Feeding South Dakota's BackPack Program is on steadier ground than it's ever been going into the school year.  Organizers say they have proper funding and do not expect a waiting list of hungry students. But that doesn't mean their job is done.

During a time when most South Dakota students are wearing new clothes during their first week back to school, thousands of others are more concerned about when they'll get their next meal.

All too often, school lunch was the only food students received during the day, leaving children to go hungry during the weekend. That was until Feeding South Dakota launched the BackPack Program six years ago. Allison Struck is the BackPack Program coordinator.

"It's been a crazy few years. I think the need has always been here.  There just wasn't a program that was addressing chronic hunger," Struck said.

The program buys food for children to take home over the weekend. It started with volunteers filling 100 bags. Now more than 3,100 are handed out each week. Executive Director Matt Gassen admits over the years, the program grew too big, too fast as Feeding South Dakota stretched beyond its means to meet the need.

"For many, many years we operated this program on a hope and a prayer. We would always start in the fall with the school year, dedicating a certain number of kids that we were going to serve, never once did we have the money in hand when we started the school year," Gassen said.

Recently, the number of hungry children grew too large to sustain, costing $500,000 per school year. Lack of money forced siblings to share one bag and a waiting list grew beyond 200 names.

"We had to make the toughest decision we've ever had to make; that was to take kids off the program. We don't want that to happen again so that's what we're doing. We are building to ensure we don't have to do that again," Gassen said.

Effective fund raising and efficiency within the program is helping it stabilize going into the new school year. Official numbers won't be released until mid-September.  However Struck expects to feed the same number of children as last year.

"I've started contacting the staff and they're getting back to me with their numbers and it looks like we are pretty consistent. So, we are hoping there is no need for a waiting list this year," Struck said.

And that's huge. For the first time ever, the program has enough money going into the upcoming school year to feed more than 3,100 students.

"It's a dream come true for us. Since the fall of 2007, that's what we've strived to do. To know we're so close is really a dream come true," Gassen said.

And while it's a big success for the BackPack Program, organizers say their job is far from finished. With the help of community donations, they hope to spread it to rural communities so no South Dakota child goes hungry.

Feeding South Dakota credits generous donations from United Way, corporate sponsors and private contributions for helping them meet the current need in the community.

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