Sunday, March 4, 2012

They'll Give You the Food on Your Back

When most people think of a food pantry, they think of a place they go to get food.

Lisa Heverly loads backpacks loaded with food
But at least one program that is growing in Pottstown schools brings the food to you -- or at least to the students.

Called Operation Backpack, the program began last year at Barth Elementary School, providing backpacks full of food for 20 needy children to bring home to eat over the weekend.

Since then it has expanded to all five Pottstown elementary schools, said Lisa Heverly, the director of the program, which is sponsored by True to Life Ministries.

"We're now sending food home with 85 children each week. We have 20 students each at Barth and Rupert, 19 at Lincoln, 18 at Edgewood and eight at Franklin," Heverly said.

Food and funds are donated and the food is stored at a cold storage facility at Watchdog Storage on Berks Street, where the organization is charged only for its electricity use.

On Wednesday evenings, a group of volunteers, including a local basketball team and a youth group, gathers there and packs up the food into the 85 backpacks, which are then brought to the schools Thursday morning.

It's not hard to understand why the program has expanded so quickly.

"There's a real need in the school district, they almost 75 percent of the students on free-or-reduced lunch, and once the principals started talking to each other they contacted us," said Heverly.

Full backpacks ready to go home with kids
"Over at Lincoln they were super-excited when we started there," she said.

The students are referred to the program by school personnel. "They have criteria they use, primarily if kids come in to school on Monday and go to the nurse and say they don't feel well, or they feel hungry," Heverly explained.

Despite the rapid growth, Heverly said her group would like to go more.

"We would love to get into the middle school and the high school, we know there is a need there," she said.

There is a particular need that Operation Backpack has as well. They food they send home has to be non-perishable and has to be small enough and simple enough that the children can make it for themselves.

"We try to make it easy things that don't require cooking, or that they can just pop the top and stick it in the microwave," said Heverly.

These are among the things needed
Here is a list of what they need (in addition to money) as well as non-endorsed examples to make your shopping easier:
  • tuna-to-go (like Starkist lunch to go);
  • mac and cheese (like Chef Boyardee -- 7.5 oz. or 14.25 oz.);
  • apple sauce (like Motts package of six 4 oz. cups);
  • spaghettios/ravioli (like Chef Boyardee again);
  • vegetable beef soup (like Campell's To Go 14.5 oz. package);
  • chicken and dumplings (see above);
  • chicken noodle soup (and again);
  • fruit cups (Dole Tropical Fruit in Juice, four 4 oz. cups);
  • granola or fruit bars( Quaker's chewy or Nutrigrain);
  • Pop-tarts (Need I really identify this for you all?);
  • goldfish (crackers not actual fish people .. pkg of nine 1 oz. bags);
  • water (12 16 oz. bottles);
  • Gatorade (same as above0;
  • pudding (Jell-O pudding snacks, package of six)
If you have purchased any of these, or similar items, and would like to arrange the donation, you can call Heverly at 484-942-4441 to make arrangements.

In addition to needing the food, Operation Backpack is also in need of a permanent drop-off point to make it easier for people to donate. Locations will to host a drop off should e-mail her at or call Heverly at the number above.

Pottstown's Riverfront Park
If you would like to more than just write a check to help raise money, Operation Backpack is holding its Third Annual Operation Backpack 5-K run fun walk in Riverfront Park on April 14. You can register here or at the web site: and if you register before April 1 you get a free t-shirt.

Medals are given by gender and age group for the race. The course is fast, so it is not unusual to have many personal bests on race day. The event is walker friendly, both in the 5K and 1 mile, but it is also a great race for competitive runners.

This just another place you can help the needy during our food drive, through the season of Lent.

Our goal is to collect 20,000 food items and 1,000 containers of laundry detergent by the Passover-Easter weekend April 7-8. The laundry detergent goal is a separate drive inspired by what food pantry operators describe as an urgent request from families.

Mercury Editor Nancy March, right, explains the food drive.
This food collection effort goes beyond one community.

While Pottstown and the Cluster Outreach Center run by the Pottstown Area Cluster of Religious Communities is one food pantry that will benefit, so will the North Coventry Food Pantry and sites in Boyertown, Phoenixville, Royersford and Spring City. The effort involves a partnership of The Mercury and the community-based bloggers on Town Square, a network featured at

Bloggers will highlight and promote food collection efforts (like I did just now) in their various communities. The Mercury will also serve as a central collection site and will aid with the distribution and counting of food items.

This is our Community Media Lab that we want to fill with food
The goal will be to “fill the media lab,” which involves using social media to “pin” photos of food items collected onto a photo of our Community Media Lab space. The virtual filling of the room will coincide with counting of items as they are delivered to area food pantries.

In the short time since the effort was announced, churches, businesses and clubs have come forward offering to help and making us aware of collection efforts.

And here is a map put together of all the places that have so far offered to serve as drop-off centers:


And in case you haven't noticed, I'm not the first person to write about this drive.

On Monday,  Mercury Reporter extraordinaire Brandie Kessler, who came up with the whole idea, kicked it off with this story in the newspaper and on our web site.

The same day, boss lady March posted this entry about the effort on her blog, From the Editor's Desk.

Sue Repko, over at Positively Pottstown, kicked off the promotion on our Town Square blogger's site with this post about lining up Grumpy's Sandwiches as a drop-off site.
Alan MacBain's GREAT cartoon on this project

On Wednesday, Kessler, wrote this story for the paper about how great the response has been so far.

Not to be outdone, Mercury Editor Nancy March wrote this editorial for the same day's edition.

On the same day, the Tail of 2 Dogs blog posted this entry about recruiting four drop-off locations, and again on Thursday, posted this entry about two locations agreeing to be drop-off centers.

On March 1, Heather Tyrell, editor of our sister paper, The Phoenix reported on Project Outreach, a food pantry in Royersford and Spring City that is helping needy families.

And on March 2, blogger Laura Catalano joined the fray, with this post in her 52 Ways to Wake Up a Week blog helping raise awareness about the needs at the North Coventry Food Pantry.

The same day, March blogged again about donations coming from near and far, even as far away as Ohio.

If you have suggestions about other places that need help, or other ways help can be provided, or know of other efforts to help feed our neighbors, drop us a line here or at The Mercury and let us know.

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