The South Elementary School Backpack Program started in 2009, when Jennifer Nigut, school counselor and coordinator with the program, began hearing complaints from hungry children.
"Four years ago, we had several students who complained of being hungry. They were stealing food. They were asking for left over snacks. They were doing things like digging through the trash to get left over snacks," she said, adding, "We started exploring some ways to try to combat that and I went to a conference. We'd heard about the backpack program but it was always done in urban cities like Kansas City."
She noted that the bigger areas were able to obtain grant funding to help all the children in the inner city schools. Nigut and those teachers working with her realized that they would not be able to afford to take care of all the children in the school. Later on, they found a school called Casper Elementary near the Joplin/Springfield, Mo., area.
"Her school building was a third, fourth, and fifth grade building, just like mine and about the same makeup, and demographics. Our building is about 73 percent for reduced lunches and I think we're at 64 percent in our building, just at this age level," she said.
She added that the conference she attended concentrated on backpack programs geared toward rural schools which Kennett certainly is.
"So, we came back and got some funding and we started shopping and doing the convenience foods, the small individually packed proportioned foods that didn't need to be refrigerated and didn't need cooking," she noted. As they began buying the food, Nigut noted that the foods were pretty expensive to buy.
"What we did was, an article appeared in our paper about it and the Southeast Missourian picked up the article so the food bank at Cape called us and said 'we would like to help you but we would be offering you family portions of food at a discounted rate. So, we partnered with them our second year of doing it," she said.
At first the food bank sent cases of food that they needed and she had volunteers help her to prepare the boxes for the children to take home. Nigut now says when the food comes to her, it is already packaged into that week's meal.
"It feeds approximately a family of four for the weekend. It doesn't need refrigerating but it needs something maybe to go with it or it needs microwaving. I ask the students to make sure that they have running water, and a stove." She noted that if the children don't have those things, they'll work with them and try to help them get those things.
Funding for the program the first year came from donations, individually and from churches.
"We started it in January so I only needed funding for half the year," Nigut said. She noted that the word began to spread after that and many of the local civic organizations became involved. It was during this time, she wrote the United Way grant.
"We have received funding each year from the United Way. It doesn't pay for all of it but it pays for a big portion of it," she said.
When asked how much the Backpack Program receives from the United Way, she noted they were recipients of $1,000.
"It costs $280 dollars a year to sponsor a child for Backpack from September through May and we do 20. We try to send it home with students in this building but if there is a student in another building that doesn't have any kind of tie to South School, the social worker will come to pick it up to send home with them. This age group that has been identified as the age group that likes to receive it and wants it and that helps." Nigut added for next school year, the cost will increase to $320.
The need for help in Dunklin County is great and according to figures from the Southeast Missouri Food Bank, there are 2,170 children in Dunklin County who do not know where their next meal is coming from. In light of this amount, the question came up of how only 20 children are chosen for the program.
"Our teachers go on home visits at the beginning of the year and they're in most children's houses and they see [the conditions]. After they come back from that, they make some notes for me," she said. She said they look at children who are already on reduced lunches. She adds that she tries to keep a little extra food just in case they have a move-in or if they have someone who is temporarily in need.
There is a referral form that teachers fill out which includes the behavior that demonstrates food insecurity as well as physical appearance, school performance and home environment.
Originally, when the program first started, South School was the only program of that kind in the Bootheel. Now, Nigut notes that Senath, Holcomb and all of the Pemiscot Schools have jumped on board and are now doing it.
Every Friday, backpacks are given out and if school isn't in session that day then students may come in on a Thursday and pick them up.
Also, at Christmas time other things are included in the backpacks to ensure that the students have a good holiday and the Jaycees have always tried to ensure that the Backpack kids get food baskets and toys.
To make a donation, one may do it in a few different ways. One is to make it to the Kennett Educational Foundation and earmark it for the Kennett Backpack Program or they can make it directly to the Southeast Missouri Food Bank and earmark it for the Kennett Backpack Program or what other town they wish the money to be earkmarked for. And since, the Backpack Program does receive funding from the United Way, by giving to the United Way, this also helps the children of the program. According to Nigut, that is one of the reasons it is so important for the United Way to reach its goal each year.
"If we don't get funded our goal, then I don't get my whole allocation," she said, adding, "These are typically the kids that struggle, in general," Nigut said, noting that this program has helped the kids in maintaining and increasing their grades.
Besides helping with the Backpack Program, Nigut is also trying to raise funds for the mobile food pantry which, basically, is a refrigerated truck that will have all the components for a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. She is not sure as to when this will take place. Look for more on this at a later date in the Daily Dunklin Democrat.
In closing, Nigut said, "School is not just about teaching these kids anymore. It's about taking care of them. It's about feeding them, making sure they're clothed. As teachers, we worry about them. It doesn't stop at three o'clock."