Families who earn below a certain threshold get help from their local school in the form of free or discounted meals for their children.

But school feeding programs don't carry kids through the weekend — especially not a long holiday weekend.

Prompted by concerns that kids in the community were truly struggling to eat solid meals on their days away from school, the Hunterdon County Partnership for Health (PFH) secured funding for a program that can send kids home for the weekend with a supply of nutritious food and drinks, in a discrete manner that doesn't single them out among their peers.

"Food insecurity is a problem everywhere, even in a wealthy county like Hunterdon County," said Kim Blanda, clinical liaison for Hunterdon Healthcare.

As part of the Backpack Program, staff fill a nondescript "backpack," which sometimes is as simple as a plastic grocery bag, with shelf-stable items such as fruit cups, cereal, protein shakes and macaroni & cheese. The bags of take-home goods are given to children who meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch, and are dealing with some other circumstance that would classify them as in need, such as a job loss in the family, or a special-needs sibling.

PFH partnered with nonprofit Norwescap to bring the Backpack Program to 12 schools in the county, serving about 100 students, with support from New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grant program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"We can handle more than 100 but it's a process getting people to know about the program," Blanda said.

Ahead of longer breaks such as Thanksgiving weekend, Blanda said, kids in the program are typically equipped with a larger supply of food staples.

"On top of that, certain times of the year they do add things to the backpack, like toothbrushes or hats and gloves, or maybe sunscreen as the weather starts to get warmer," she said.

Blanda said school nurses in the districts are the "champions" that helped roll out the program locally. There are specific backpacks made available for the program, but Blanda said non-participating students quickly learn the meaning of those packs.

"We try to do this kind of on the down low," she said. "So it doesn't really identify the student who is in need of this food over the weekend."

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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