Feeding Students, Together
by Kelly McCandless
Food. We plan days around meals, we celebrate occasions around food, and we need it to sustain us. Most of us take food for granted. We can’t imagine wondering where our next meal will come from or what it feels like to go without food. Unfortunately, more people, especially children, are becoming all too familiar with these unimaginable realities.
In 2007, School District 2 was addressing major behavioral issues and determined food insecurity was a significant factor. Kids who relied on school to provide breakfast and lunch through the free or reduced meal program went home on weekends and during school breaks with little to no food available. Anxiety before the break and emotional issues when they returned to school were rampant. That’s when the program's founder, Ginny Mermel, started the BackPack Meals and School Food Pantry programs. Today, the programs are managed by the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools, and they ensure more than 800 children in SD2 are fed healthy, nourishing food each week when they’re not at school.
The BackPack Meals program focuses on elementary students. It provides two lunches and two breakfasts to sustain kids over the weekend for the meals they usually receive during the school day (and larger food kits for longer breaks). While students are at recess, school staff discreetly slip the meals into the child’s backpack. The Foundation provides 420 BackPack Meal kits each week, up 7% from last school year.
The School Food Pantry Program (formerly known as Teen Pantries) also addresses needs. In the middle and high schools, students identified as being food insecure are given access to a privately located food pantry where they select shelf-stable, nutritious, easy-to-prepare foods and basic hygiene items. In the spring of 2022, the pantry program expanded to include elementary schools and pre-K and adult education programs. Today, the Foundation manages 35 food pantries and feeds a conservative minimum of 400 students weekly through the pantries.
All Hands on Deck
Between the two programs, more than 800 students in Billings Public Schools rely on the Foundation for food outside of school hours. Meeting this huge demand costs between $4,000 - $6,000 every week.
That’s where this story gets good. Almost two years ago, a woman saw an interview of an elementary school teacher on the news. The teacher described how difficult it is to teach when a child is hungry because they can’t focus, they fall asleep, or they cry. The woman wanted to do something and thought many others would like to help.
The rest, as they say, is history. She connected with the Foundation to learn about the programs and where the need was greatest. After researching and learning about the needs, she knew she wanted to help elementary school children.
“I knew my friends would help, but I wanted to create something they would be excited about. My friends have done it all,” she explained. “They’ve been professionals, volunteers, board members, and community leaders. The last thing they wanted was more meetings and events.” So, she started sending emails to her friends, telling the story and inviting them to help in whatever way worked for them. She shared a list of items needed. Soon, her living room looked like a grocery store.
“The women started shopping for items the Foundation needed for these kids. They dropped it by my house, and I delivered it so the Foundation could distribute it to the students.” Some women brought checks instead of groceries; all became invested in providing for these kids, which they do every month. The woman calls them the Wild Women of the West because they are! “Their commitment is extraordinary,” she said, noting that these incredible women remain anonymous.
What’s more, they’ve expanded how they care for kids. They’ve purchased better storage for the pantry foods in the schools and started providing fresh fruits and vegetables monthly year-round.
Together, We Make a Difference
The Wild Women will say, “Look what a group can do. We are making a difference with all of us doing what we can! We want to inspire others to take on a cause they are passionate about. Whatever you can do makes a difference when you have a common goal and work together.”
The Foundation cannot speak highly enough about these women, their generosity, and the amazing model they’ve created. “Every month, I know I’ll be able to restock our 22 elementary pantries with the nourishing food the women provide for us,” explained Nikki Dolan, Food Insecurity Program Coordinator for the Foundation.
It’s true what they say, “Many hands make light work.” And a BIG impact.
Kelly McCandless is a Billings native who loves a well-planned adventure, being outdoors when the weather is nice, historic fiction and hot coffee. She’s passionate about writing, cooking, education, travel and doing all of these things with her husband Ryan and their two incredible daughters