Today they feed 200 kids in Natrona County every weekend. But to feed all the Wyoming kids without enough food, The Wyoming Food for Thought Project would need more than 30,000 backpacks.

The project was originally run by the Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies. Jamie Purcell, the current executive director of Wyoming Food for Thought, is a former employee of the food bank. “They lost their drive to maintain the program,” she said, explaining that a change in management was a motivating factor.

When Purcell approached the Natrona County School District last November, they told her “[she should] do whatever you want to do. Make it better.” The district had funded their own smaller version of the food drive under the name Natrona County Food for Thought, but lacked the resources to distribute balanced meals on a large scale. Purcell began with Food for Thought Sunday, which encouraged local churches to donate food for hungry children. After the event proved successful, she moved on to the backpacks.

A backpack starts with donated food items. Purcell’s goal was to create balanced meals, and to give kids enough food to eat over the course of a weekend while also assuming there were others in the household as well. “[We wanted] more items we can use on a consistent basis,” she said. To that end, Purcell encouraged churches and volunteer organizations to request specific goods. The program has a ravioli church, a granola bar church, and so on.

Casper business Pottery By You chose peanut butter. Michelle Heaphy, owner of the business is a former teacher. From personal experience, she’d seen that “a lot of kids don’t get the food they need over the weekend.” Heaphy has a soft spot in her heart for the issue. She encourages customers to bring in peanut butter by offering them a free punch on the store’s reward card. The store donated almost 40 jars of peanut butter on its first delivery to the project.

Donations come through many channels, from local churches to Urgent Care and Reliant Federal Credit Union. Food deliveries like the peanut butter usually arrive by Wednesday, which is when the project’s volunteers begin putting the backpacks together. The volunteers form assembly lines with a weekly menu for guidance. The food is then packed into the backpacks, which are actually Walmart bags. Purcell explained that this would make it simpler for kids to store the food in their school bags.

The finished backpacks are loaded into tubs, labeled, and picked up by by volunteer drivers for delivery to individual schools.

For now, the backpacks contain small, healthy meals as well as information about local outreach organizations.

“I’m using them [backpacks] as a vessel,” Purcell said, hoping that she’ll be able to provide more support to hungry children and their families as the program grows. In March, backpacks will begin to include packets of seeds, pots, and dirt, along with the meals, in order to give families the opportunity to grow their own food.

By Friday, the backpacks are delivered to the schools. The volunteers take the bags into the office, where an assistant takes the tubs for the last step. “They call the kids down,” said Lori Burns, program facilitator for the Natrona County School District. Calling them individually protects the children’s privacy, and also makes sure that the backpack reaches its final destination safely.

Then the process starts over. Volunteers will return with more food backpacks the following Friday.

While the job can be as short as one week, Burns said that “most sign up for the whole school year.” She herself delivers food to University Park Elementary.

Purcell is trying to get backpacks to more kids by expanding the distribution points throughout the summer. While the project currently only delivers to Casper children, she has the ambition to one day serve the whole state. “Pie in the sky goal would be to defeat each of those [hunger problems] every week,” said Purcell. While the support system is shaky yet, the backpacks themselves are ready to take that journey.

Contact Lori Burns at 262-6426 for information on the Wyoming Food for Thought Project.

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