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Backpack program prepares for the holidays

Volunteer Patty McCune gets bags ready to be filled at the Kids’ Weekend Backpack Program last week at Butler Intermediate High School. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

Holiday breaks mean grade-school students get to miss classrooms and tests, but for some it could mean missing meals.

To counter that possibility, the Kids’ Weekend Backpack Program is gearing up to provide extra food for participants in the food program for the six-day Thanksgiving and the 12-day Christmas breaks.

Audray Muscatello Yost, one of the team leaders of the backpack program, said volunteers will place extra meals into the backpacks of the 445 students in eight elementary schools in Butler Area School District.

“We make sure there is a breakfast, lunch and dinner entree for the days there are no school, plus eight other items,” Yost said.

She said in December, the program will deliver 101 food items to cover meals in the weekends leading up to Christmas and the 12 days school is closed for the holiday break.

Food items to tide recipients over include peanut butter and crackers, ramen noodles, Hormel Compleats meals that contain meat and potatoes, macaroni and cheese, Chef Boyardee products, cookies, crackers and applesauce.

“These are single-serve, shelf-stable items that are microwaveable and only need water,” she said. “We have 24 volunteers each week to help us. A lot of them are retired teachers and community volunteers.”

Bags are packed with food and delivered to the schools where teachers will discreetly place them in the students’ backpacks so they are not singled out. The food is distributed on Fridays unless there is no school on Friday.

Yost notes the food is packed out of a hub in the central receiving building behind the Butler Intermediate School.

“The hub is working out really well. We’re busy filling 445 bags each week, and it just runs really smoothly in this hub,” she said.

“There’s a lot of food we have to separate into bags,” Yost said.

Adding to difficulty is keeping track of the food allergies of some of the recipients.There are soy and peanut allergies to take into account, there’s a child who can’t have gluten, another who can’t have artificial colors. She said it takes at least an hour to make sure all the food is safe for each student.

Yost said students can pick up an application for the program at the beginning of the school year.

“We don’t ask for any information although allergies have to be documented,” she said.

Yost said some food is donated, and the foundation uses donations to buy more food, whose prices have been escalating. The program is spending $5,000 a month to buy food — an increase of 50% while at the same time the number of students applying for the food is increasing.

“The donations are keeping pace,” she said. “We do apply for grants. Right now, we are OK, but when you are spending that much money, it’s scary.”

She praised the donations the program has received in both food and other materials from the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Sam’s Club.

“St. Vincent de Paul is wonderful. We just got five boxes of food from them,” she said.

Churches and the community have been very generous, she added, noting Slippery Rock University students have donated food, and Sam’s Club donated two cabinets and made five others available at a discount.

Lou Richards, a volunteer at the St. Vincent de Paul food bank, said that in addition to storing donations from the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank to the backpack program until they can be picked up, the society sends food it has gathered along to the program.

“We do it about once a month. We gather stuff that the kids would like,” Richards said.

Muscatello said monetary donations are also very welcome. Checks should be made out to the Golden Tornado Scholastic Foundation, c/o Kim Thomas, 210 Mechling Ave., Butler, PA 16001. In the memo section, write: Kids’ Weekend Backpack Program

Volunteer Cindy Musko, right, packs up bags of food last week at Butler Intermediate High School for the Kids’ Weekend Backpack Program. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle
Team leader Liane Chisholm puts food on one of the shelves for the Kids Weekend Backpack Program last week at the Butler Intermediate High School. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

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