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Backpack program in third year of service

It was a question that begged to be asked: What do the students who use the school's free/reduced lunch program eat on the weekend?

The answer: donated healthy food, thanks to Grace Place volunteers in Somerset.

The Backpack Program at Grace Place is currently in its third year of serving the St. Croix County area - specifically New Richmond Head Start and the New Richmond School District. The Somerset School District chose not to participate this year.

The program packs non-perishable food such as canned fruit, canned vegetables, macaroni and cheese and cereal in donated backpacks that are indistinguishable from regular school backpacks. The "blending in" allows for student participants to have some anonymity.

"We want to be as discreet as possible," Duana Bremer, director of Grace Place, said. "For the elementary and middle school it works perfect, but high schoolers are a little more uncomfortable carrying the bag. However, they usually have younger siblings carrying the pack or they can have their parents come pick it up from school."

In addition to easy-to-prepare food, the packs also include milk coupons and recipes for the families to make a healthy meal using the enclosed ingredients.

According Bremer, the first year they started the program they served 38 students. The letters announcing the free/reduced program had only recently gone out and from that, the participants will be invited to participate in the backpack program.

However, Bremer said they didn't want to wait for the letters to go out this year

Since the beginning of the school year, they have been delivering backpacks to the New Richmond Head Start and school district. As Grace Place does not know the names of the students, the bags are simply numbered and the school nurse disperses them - making indications on bags with potential food allergies.

The food is taken from the Grace Place food shelf, but when supplies are low, they purchase from Second Harvest.

"Each backpack costs about $6-$7 per week," Bremer said. "We are currently sending out 42 backpacks each week, and for the longer weekends, we include a bit more 'snacky' foods like Spaghetti-Os or cereal."

Cereal is one of the most difficult items to keep in stock, mainly because cereal can be used as a meal and a snack. However, the volunteers request that the donated cereal be in mid-size boxes, as the bag cereal and large boxes take up more space in the backpacks.

Any non-perishable food item that is easy for kids to prepare is welcome. The volunteers just ask they are not in glass jars - such as jelly - and can allow space for other food.

"We also would accept any gently-used mid-to-large sized backpacks," said Kris Coenen, a Richmond resident who has volunteered for the program all three years. "The little kids drag them on the ground so the bottoms wear out."

Bremer also said monetary donations are always accepted.

"The New Richmond School District is so supportive," Bremer said. "The first year they had an Empty Bowls event and raised $3,720 - a portion of that went to the backpack program."

The volunteers who stuff the backpacks switch off every other week. One week members from the Kiwanis club volunteer, the other week it is Coenen, Sharon Czubin, Ann Fernstrom and Randy Roger - all from New Richmond.

For them, volunteering has its own rewards.

"Every once in a while," Cuzbin, a volunteer for three years, began, "we get a note in the packs saying 'Thank you backpack ladies.'"