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Friday, May 6, 2016

Increasing need impacts R-6 backpack program

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Traveling Divas use glass tiles to create specialty necklaces featuring colorful artwork, sports logos and school mascots, which are sold for $5 each. Proceeds from the sales are dedicated to the Food for Thought backpack program at Pierce City R-6 School. Pendants are also available at Vintage Revival in Pierce City. [Times Photo by Melonie Roberts] [Order this photo]
The Food for Thought backpack program at Pierce City R-6 District has seen a tremendous increase in participants since last year, and organizers are struggling to meet the demands of children in need.

"We had 32 participants last year," said program organizer Susan Gripka. "This year we have 51. We made the decision to add those kids and feed them all."

To do that, the organization had to make some cuts to the meals provided in the backpacks sent home with students on weekends.

Pictured above is a sample of meals used in the Food for Thought backpack program at Pierce City R-6 School. Students eligible for the weekend nutrition program must already be enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program through the school. [Times Photo by Melonie Roberts] [Order this photo]
"The largest expense by far is the shelf stable milk," Gripka said. "We spend about $1,500 a year on milk. Our thought was students get milk throughout the week at school and we could sacrifice that in order to feed the additional participants. If we get additional funding, we will pickup the milk again."

The program offers nutrition to students identified through specific criteria. Students must already be on the free or reduced meal program to be eligible to participate.

"Nearly 76 percent of students attending Pierce City schools are receiving free or reduced lunches," Gripka said. "There is a huge need."

Gripka first became aware of food insecurity issues at the district through her daughter, Shelby, who is an elementary school teacher.

"Shelby came home one evening and told me a little boy in her class said he might be hyper that day because he had eaten half a bag of sugar over the weekend," Gripka said. "That was all there was in the home for him to eat. There were also instances of food being stolen in the classroom.

"I was just called to start this program," Gripka said. "I couldn't sleep knowing kids were hungry."

Gripka heard about similar programs in other districts and began campaigning for support for the R-6 program through area civic and church groups.

"I have churches that will hold peanut butter drives for me," Gripka said. "When a long weekend or holiday comes up, we pack a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter in the backpacks along with other items so they can get through and have plenty to eat."

Gripka shops at a large warehouse, buying food items in bulk to save money.

"We take two trucks to Joplin two or three times a year and shop," she said. "The we bring it home and unload it. It's a lot of work, but I can buy more that way than going through an organization like Ozark Food Harvest."

Gripka said the initial cost to join a provider like Ozark Food Harvest is $27,000, which supports 20 kids for three years.

"We don't have that kind of money," Gripka said. "I would be able to feed kids for years at that price."

Children in the district have come to depend on the backpacks.

"I get students who ask about them," Shelby said. "They ask if we are aware that school is getting out early or that we are having a short week and want to know if they will still get a backpack."

The local program supports students in both the elementary and middle school.

To help fund the program the Gripka ladies have formed The Traveling Divas, a small craft operation where they make glass tile necklaces and sell them at $5 each at area craft shows and fairs.

"It provides a way for people to donate to a good cause and feel like they are getting something back."

The necklaces feature sports team logos, school logos, colorful artwork and initials. The tiles can also be made into key chains and magnets.

"We also host the annual Pilgrim's Run on Thanksgiving morning in Pierce City," Gripka continued. "That generally brings in about $2,000, but one rainy morning when no one shows up could be devastating to the program. I really want to make this program sustainable."

Shelby, owner of Vintage Revival in Pierce City, also crafts custom vintage button bracelets and hair accessories. She donates a portion of the proceeds from those sales to the backpack program as well.

Gripka's son, Israel, a musician, also donates a portion of the proceeds of album sales to the program.

So far, over 14,400 meals have been provided to Pierce City students through the program. The first year, with 25 participants, it cost $4,800 to fund the program. Last year, with the economy and rising food prices, it cost $5,900 to fund 32 participants.

"This program has been a huge success," Gripka said, "thanks to our generous donors and volunteers who have given of their time and money."

For more information on the Pierce City Food for Thought backpack program, call 476-5139 or 234-6859. Information on The Traveling Divas may be found on Facebook or at travelingdivasmo.com.

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