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Stark County Hunger Task Force keeps kids connected with backpack food program over the summer

A group of people reach into grey bins to fill up bags of food.
Stark County Hunger Task Force
Volunteers pack bags for Stark County Hunger Task Force's backpack project, which provides food for children in families earning less than the poverty line.

With the end of the school year at the Canton City School District, non-profit organizations such as Stark County Hunger Task Force are stepping up to ensure families who count on food assistance for them and their kids can still get the support they need. The task force provides backpacks filled with food for children whose family’s income is below the poverty line. For the summer it's shifting distribution from schools to other community locations for the summer, according to Executive Director Stephanie Sweany.

“This is a program that we typically run during the school year,” Sweany said. “We distribute around 2000 bags a week to 17 schools.”

With the arrival of summer, the non-profit had to look for other ways to distribute the backpacks, so it's partnered with the Stark and Massillon Libraries. The bags include two breakfast and lunch items, two or three snacks and a shelf stable milk or juice.

“All the items that we put in them are very accessible, easy to cook, pop tops and tear tops,” Sweany said. “Things that they have to add water to and can put in the microwave, so they’re so much easier for them to make on their own.”

Sweany said that the contents of the backpacks are meant to cover the gap over the weekends, since there are plenty of places providing hot meals throughout the week.

“The backpack program is countywide, but we do have a more specific focus during the summer months in Canton City,” Sweany said. “The poverty rate for children in Canton City is extremely high, it’s around 43 percent now.”

Sweany said that even though the numbers are improving slowly every year, Stark County, and Canton in particular, still has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

“You know when kids are hungry, they can struggle with their concentration, it can affect their mental health and cause a lot of underlying conditions,” Sweany said. “So, we always want to keep that program going even though school is not in.”

Families with children between the ages of three and seventeen can pick up backpacks at fourteen different locations.

“We are always looking for volunteers during the summer for our backpack program,” Sweany said. “They can reach out to me if they’re interested in volunteering.”

Sweany said that each backpack costs roughly three dollars to pack. The program is supported mainly through donations. Stark County Hunger Force helps feed two thousand children a week during the school year.

Des Torres is an intern at Ideastream Public Media.