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68 hours

Three out of every four students in Salem, Mass., receives a free or reduced school lunch. That’s fine when school is in session, but what about the weekend? What about when they are home because of COVID–19?

That’s when the “Backpack 68” program at the Salem Salvation Army comes in each Friday. There are 68 hours between lunch on Friday until breakfast on Monday, when kids are guaranteed a meal.

“There was concern that youth in our community were not receiving adequate food over the weekends,” explained Katina Polemenako, director of social services for the North Shore Corps in Salem.

Polemenako said school counselors and teachers help identify needy students. Their parents are contacted to see if they would be interested in having their child participate.

In smaller schools, Polemenako said corps staffers drop off bags that are already assembled on Friday mornings to be distributed by the school.

The Salvation Army brings food to a middle school on Fridays during the school year and to the Boys and Girls Club in Salem in the summer. The students get to pick their own food and load it into backpacks. About 30 to 35 families take part.

“All items are non–perishable, and kids take what they can carry in a backpack for the weekend,” Polemenako said.

“We usually do the distribution during lunch where we have a spot away from the lunchroom,” Polemenako added. “Allowing the students to select items for the family gives them a sense of contributing to the household and allows us to build relationships with the students.”

The goal is to provide two breakfasts, two lunches, snacks, fruit, and bread. Among the offerings are English muffins or bagels, fresh fruit or canned fruit, canned vegetable, canned soup, peanut butter, jelly, cereal, mac and cheese, pasta and sauce, rice, beans, boxed milk, tuna, canned chicken, and a snack (crackers, fruit bars).

Most of the items come from the Greater Boston Food Bank. The backpacks were provided by a local donor.

Polemenako said Backpack 68, a five–year–old program, was discontinued when COVID–19 hit, but The Salvation Army continued to give food away at the corps. This opened a big door to build relationships.

“So, here is the positive,” she said. “I have never met any of the parents of these kids, but now I know several and these families are receiving much more food than they ever did on Fridays.

“They are receiving double the number of non–perishables and additional items such as eggs, cheese, milk, meat, and produce.”

Polemenako has become familiar with several participants:

  • Sarah comes with her mother and gets a special snack for remembering to bring her backpack. Sarah shares pictures with Salvation Army staff of her cooking the food the family receives.
  • One mother said her daughter likes coming to Backpack 68 because the staff makes her take canned vegetables. “The mom said that she wanted to meet the people who talked her child into receiving vegetables because she now is trying to eat more of them,” Polemenako said. “As we build these relationships with families, it is a positive way to connect them to our programs that will benefit the whole family.”
  • A single mother with two children lost her job during COVID–19. Like many other Americans, she had trouble accessing unemployment benefits. She fell several months behind in paying her rent, but The Salvation Army helped her and now she will be caught up when the eviction bans are lifted.

Polemenako said meeting the parents has been a huge bonus. “The families I have talked to have said, ‘You have no idea what this means to us,’” she said. “It’s an awesome program.”

by Robert Mitchell

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