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Who will feed the kids this weekend?

First Coast Chapter Blessings in a Backpack

Managing Director Susan Evans is no stranger to Southeastern Grocers’ community involvement. In addition to participation in the Bloomin’ 4 Good program, First Coast Blessings in a Backpack partnered with SEG to feed more than 500 kids recently, thanks to a Winn-Dixie packing event. Winn-Dixie has supported this nonprofit organization through its Bloomin’ 4 Good Program.                            

Tell us about First Coast Blessings in a Backpack.

We are part of the national child hunger prevention network that feeds 90,000 children each year. We’ve always found that when people understand what we do and who we feed they embrace the mission because it is a very simple one: we feed the children that we know are hungry and hurting. Here on the First Coast, we partner directly with our schools. We consider them to be the experts in this field. School nurses, counselors, teachers and others identify the students that are exhibiting signs or symptoms of food insecurity and undernourishment, and these are the children we feed.  These are the kids that depend on their school for food. They arrive to school on Monday in the same clothes they had on Friday, they hoard and hide food, teachers see behavioral and emotional changes, and many make excuses to go to the school nurse because she always has juice and cookies.

Blessings in a Backpack, the national organization, was founded in 2005, and our First Coast chapter has been operating over a decade. The national organization came upon the chapter concept because when it comes to meeting an essential need, who knows your communities better than someone who lives and works here? A good example of that is the faith-based partners that we have; the ones that we had from the very beginning we still work very closely with every day and more have joined us.  Your best partnerships are those where everyone is closely aligned with the mission and equipped to help safely access those in need. We have found that the Blessings, schools and faith-based partners are natural collaborators, and together we are tremendously effective in nourishing the children in our communities that need us.

What services are you providing to the community?

We’re feeding about 5,500 kids a week via 45 School Partners in Duval, St. Johns and Clay counties. Blessings fills a critical gap in child nutrition. Period. We provide weekend nutrition to the children that depend on their school for food during the week. So when the Friday school bell rings, most of these children may not have access to healthy food or simply may not eat again until Monday. Child hunger is devastating. Think of what chronic hunger does to a child of 6, 7 or 8. Those are formative, foundational years. Hunger creates a lifetime of future health issues and robs them of their ability to be a child now. We have a simple, focused, successful approach to filling this nutritional gap for children, so why not do it?

We have a simple, focused, successful approach to filling this nutritional gap for children, so why not do it?

The Blessings weekend nutrition kits are shipped directly to the schools on Thursday. The school team places them into backpacks on Friday so that every child has something healthy and delicious to eat on Saturday and Sunday.  It’s a very discreet and respectful process. The balanced menu rotates out throughout the year and contains low sugar, low sodium, good protein items, created by our registered dietician. It costs $125 to feed a child for an entire school year of 36 to 38 weeks. Blessings makes a genuine impact because while it is a very compassionate and thoughtful program, it is also fiscally smart and mission focused.

The menus we provide are created from national brands, and that too is very intentional on our part. When one of our kids sits down and opens up their Blessings kit, we want them to look like any other kid who’s having a quick snack or meal, wherever they’re eating. Blessings kits include the very same items we all buy at any store for our own families.

Its sounds like a cliché, but there truly is power in partnership. Blessings addresses the critical gap in child nutrition by partnering with schools to create a seamless, full week of nutrition for undernourished children. We are very aware of how hard our principals, counselors and teachers work. We communicate with our schools every single week,  and everything we do is designed to make it as easy as possible to get good food to the kids that need it.

We are continually adding children to the schools we are currently serving, so I would say one of our biggest challenges now is that we have a waitlist, which just keeps me up at night.

Tell us a story that illustrates the good work you are doing.

We have a child named Romeo; he was living with his parents, and he was a Blessing student at one of our schools.  In the middle of Covid, his father lost his job and had to leave town to find work; he was gone for the rest of the year. Romeo was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and had to leave school. And so, his mom who had two part-time jobs had to quit one job to stay home with Romeo; the school brought his homework by and would also bring his Blessings delivery for him. As the school year went by Romeo’s health eventually improved and he was able to attend classes during the last two or three weeks of school with gloves and a mask.

His first week back, his guidance counselor asked him how he was doing, how his day was going, if he needed anything. He looked at her and said, “I just want to say thank you for everything, I really appreciate it. But if I could ask for something, if I could have anything, could I have a Blessings for my mom. It meant a lot for me to have it and I just want her to feel that same way.”

When you hear this from a child who’s struggling and hurting, you will begin to understand how quietly powerful this program is. We don’t ask for kids’ names; we don’t ask them for testimonials. We’ve very aware of how challenging all of this is. They’re already stressed and there’s so many things going on in their lives. Our primary goal is to make sure they get what need from us.

What achievement or contribution to the community are you most proud of?

I think our response to Covid was a significant achievement. Covid hit a month after I started, and everything closed. Corporate packing events, which were about 40% of our budget, dried up. But I saw the powerful capacity of this program to pivot, produce and deliver – and make sure food arrived where it needed to go.

We had two major donations from professional athletes come in and really fill the gap. Our Community Foundation and local businesses coordinated care efforts throughout the First Coast and really made certain funds were distributed fairly, quickly and efficiently. And I’m really proud of our very active, very committed and dedicated board. They made things happen when most people were seeing closed doors and empty shelves.

I think our response to Covid was a significant achievement.

What do you want people to know about your organization?

I would say the most unique thing about Blessings Weekend Nutrition Kits is that it is healthy, safe and smart. It is a very healthy collection of non-perishable items delivered precisely where it needs to go by people that care about the children that are receiving them.  How’s that for a mouthful? There are no wasteful, extraneous parts of our process. The menus are professionally coordinated, packaged, and delivered. Our volunteers are food safety trained. We do not include perishable items, because frankly, we have no idea how long that food will be in that backpack. Many kids have to hide their food from older adults in the house, so nonperishable items are the best way to keep the food and the child safe.

How will you use the funds raised from the Winn-Dixie Bloomin’ 4 Good program?

This project was hosted by the Fleming Island Winn Dixie, so all funds raised were directed the Blessings food fund for our Clay County school partner.

Is there anything you would like to add?

We serve 45 schools in three different counties. So, when it comes to packing events, transportation is always the bane of my existence; you don’t want to pay for transportation because that takes money out of your food budget. Recently, Southeastern Grocers hosted a packing event for us originally set to feed 250 kids, but their team was so wildly successful in securing donations, we ended up packing 500 bags!  We had scheduled volunteers to pick up the bags for each school after the event, but one school that was rather far away could not make it. Senior Manager Kevin Willis volunteered to swing by there on his way back to Southwest Florida. So, he loaded up his car and away he went…talk about above and beyond!  The SEG Packing Event was coordinated by Shannon Ponitz and assisted by the Women’s Development Network and SEG Team members.  They really pulled out all the stops and provided a phenomenal menu for our kids. AND provided fresh apples to our teacher lounges! I really love this group because they are action-oriented, problem solvers, that care about the Mission. These are invaluable assets you absolutely want in every partner and we got them when we partnered with SEG.

Managing Director Susan Evans joined First Coast Blessings in a Backpack in early 2020, just a month before the COVID pandemic.