Brooke Wiseman, the CEO of Blessings in a Backpack spent her entire career in the non-profit sector. Whether it was running one of the largest Girl Scout councils in the country, teaching in the non-profit executive education programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management and Notre Dame, serving as a consultant to a variety of non-profit client or running the marketing and fundraising operations for YWCA Chicago, Brooke’s passion for being of service to the institutions that help others is her calling. In 2012, Brooke became the national CEO of Blessings in a Backpack, an organization doing its part to stop childhood hunger in the United States. I recently sat down with Brooke to learn more about the impact Blessings in a Backpack is making on one of our most vulnerable demographic groups – elementary school children.
What attracted you to Blessings in a Backpack?
I fell in love with its very simple and clean mission of feeding elementary school children who might not have anything to eat on the weekends during the school year. That’s all we do. It’s the only program we have. It’s the only thing we do. The model directly addresses and impacts the lives of the children who receive their backpack full of food.
Picture this. There are 16 million children in the United States that are in what we call food insecure homes. This model has a direct impact on the lives of the children who receive their backpack full of food. I love that Blessings serves those in need. I love that it is a volunteer driven, grassroots organization.
How do you define food insecurity?
Food insecurity means there’s not enough food for all the people living in a home. So for many families, these are the working poor. They may be working one or two or three jobs to be able to pay the basics like rent, utilities and whatever food they can buy. Many times food insecure families barely make ends meet and food is sometimes the first thing these families have to cut back on. In some cases, the backpack food might be added to the food the rest of the family has for dinner. If the child comes home with a can of chicken or a can of tuna, mom may add something else to it to stretch it so everyone in the home can eat.
Let’s go back to the Blessings in a Backpack model. How does it work?
Childhood hunger is a serious problem in the United States and people don’t recognize it. Here’s a frightening statistic. Sixty-nine percent of children attending public schools in the U.S. are receiving free and reduced lunches! The family income threshold is pretty low to qualify for these federal programs. The reverse is what’s more amazing. Only 31% of children in public schools today do not receive free and reduced meals. So it’s hard to disagree that not having enough food is anything but an epidemic.
Okay so here’s how the model works. Often from Friday when the food insecure children leave school to Monday when they return, these kids don’t have enough food to eat. So Blessings in a Backpack sends home a child sized backpack full of food so the child has food to get them through the weekend. They return the empty backpack to school on Monday to be picked up again on Friday. They come back to schools on Monday ready to learn because they didn’t have to worry about what or when they were going to eat over the weekend. Teachers have reported the huge difference it makes. For many, the food they receive in school during the week and what they take home over the weekend is the majority of what eat. Very simple.
Of the schools you serve, approximately what percentage of students take advantage of your program? Is it safe to assume there are schools across the country with no free or reduced meal programs?
There is no approximate or set percentage of students participating in our program. It varies greatly by school. If two schools have 600 students each, 10% of one school and 100% of another school may receive our backpacks.
Sometimes communities are very surprised when they learn there are children that qualify for free or reduced lunches. In these instances, it is an invisible problem. People don’t know. They don’t think about it until it is brought to their attention. The teachers and administrators are usually aware of the problem and know how pervasive it is. There are very few schools or school districts that have no one qualifying for free or reduced lunches.
Again, it’s an invisible problem. People don’t know. Most people aren’t able to identify a hungry child, but teachers and staff inside schools know what’s going on.
Talk about the role of volunteers.
Right. Our program is really strong because of our volunteers. The programs are not run by staff members inside the schools. It’s the people in the community taking care of people in their community. When people are made aware of the need, they organize to raise the money to feed the kids, and it’s done in a very hands-on way.
We do serve kids in big cities, but we have lots of kids in suburbia, rural areas and small towns across the country. Blessings in a Backpack is in 44 states and the District of Columbia. We will soon be opening schools in at least two more states.
How many students does your organization serve?
Close to 73,000 children across the U.S. We’ve had huge increases in the last couple of years.
What do you attribute the increases to?
First of all there is a huge need. The need is not getting better. It’s probably getting worse. Unfortunately we won’t run out of clients. Having said that, I attribute the increases to awareness. People hear about us. The more they hear about us the more they want to help. They want to get involved. We have some good corporate partners. These partners want to help reduce the childhood hunger issue and they want to work with the program. We grow because our partners help us increase awareness. We grow because people tell stories about us. They read about us on Facebook. We were People Magazine’s charity of the year in 2012. That was a huge jumping off point for us.
Blessings in a Backpack is one of those things that resonates with individuals once they understand its simplicity. People can help a child in their neighborhood, in their community, in their town and be engaged in a hands-on way to feed a child.
Can you name some of your partner organizations?
We are one of the World of Difference charities for Cigna Insurance. They’ve really stepped up to the plate and started a large number of schools across the country. The partnership involves Cigna helping us tell our story and getting their employees involved as volunteers.
How many schools are you working with right now?
We are in 721 schools right now and that’s a big jump from two years ago. Blessings increased the number of students and schools by 10% a year for the last two years.
Just to clarify, we don’t normally solicit schools. Usually someone in the community contacts us and already has a good idea of what school they want to work support. For example, a child tells a parent about the kid sitting next to them that doesn’t have lunch. Teachers will sometimes contact us.
Most of the money raised for a school is done locally. The volunteers have fundraisers. They’ll have a golf outing. They’ll have a car wash. In one school, some volunteers wrap presents and the proceeds are donated feed the kids. I have seen very successful and creative fundraisers, some were very simple and others extremely complex. It all depends on the volunteer support. Some communities build their own cadre of volunteers and create their own programs.
First of all it’s non-perishable for the most part.
Not fresh fruit?
Occasionally fresh fruit is added, but the primary menu items are non-perishable because we don’t know whether the children have any way to prepare food where they live. It’s all things they can open and eat or heat up themselves. It can be chicken noodle soup, a can of chicken, a can of ravioli, a fruit cup and fruit juice. It could be granola bars or raisins. We also work hard to make sure it is something kids will eat. Sometimes you send some things home and you see that they come back when the backpack is returned on Monday morning.
Oh! So they will bring back the food?
Yes, sometimes. Mainly because they didn’t like something they may have liked last week. At some schools, the volunteers and teachers will ask the kids what they like and don’t like. The locals have some latitude on which items should go into the backpacks.
How do the Blessings in a Backpack schools get the food?
Our volunteers go to grocery stores and pick it up. We have a nutritionist on our board and we also work with the nutrition experts at the grocery stores to come up with suggested menus with foods kids will eat and that provide proper nutrition.
One of our biggest food partners is Meijer. If schools choose Meijer, there is a specific list of foods for the backpacks. Our volunteers have created relationships with their local grocers. In those instances, we work with the grocer to develop a list of items we feel are appropriate for the kids to take home.
How do you establish partnerships with grocers?
At the national level, we work on creating relationships with very large grocery chains that are found in multiple cities across the country, like Meijer, Publix, Walmart, Roundy’s and Mariano’s.
At a local level, our approach is very grassroots and entrepreneurial. Our school volunteers develop the relationships with the stores in their towns. The volunteer will walk into a grocery store, make the case for Blessings in a Backpack and ask for what they need.
The national office negotiates with our partners to get the best prices based on large quantity purchases and for the entire school year – 38 weeks. We typically pay at cost or at deeply discounted prices.
Our grocery store partners want to help. They like being involved. It’s that makes them feel really good.
We don’t work very often with food banks. It’s just not what we do, in part because we have set menus.
What does it cost to feed one child for the entire 38 week program?
For one year?
Yes, for the entire school year.
That is cheap!
Yes, that’s why people come to us because it is easy to feed a kid. A gift $100 averages out to $2.63 a week. For $100, a donor can make sure a child has food for 38 weekends a year.
As I said before, teachers at our schools continue to report how valuable our program is for the students. They report that the kids are more alert and ready to learn on Monday mornings because they haven’t been hungry over the weekend.
Our goal is to feed as many kids as we can, as much as we can. So if our local volunteers want to create a $120 menu and they can raise the money, far be it from us to stop them. I just want them to feed kids.
How do people get involved?
Anyone interested in getting involved should visit our website. You’ll find links for donating to an existing program, volunteering and for establishing a new Blessings in a Backpack program in a school. We can tell you if there are programs in your area. We have staff to help people get a program started in a school. We also give volunteers tips on how to raise the money.
The major growth opportunities for Blessings in a Backpack will be by partnering with local businesses and corporations. We are working on creating major backpack packing experiences at times during the school year when children are out of school for longer than a 2 day weekend, times like at Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, Spring Break and Easter break. Instead of the regular two day menu, there is a super backpack with food that will last for the duration of the break. Businesses can support this by donating money to purchase menu items for the extended days out of school and/or sponsor a backpacking day for employees to volunteer their time to stuff the backpacks.
We are getting more inquiries from folks who want to feed hundreds of children in their hometowns, but they are too busy to do anything other than make a donation. We will help find local volunteers to find a school and set up the program.
People can help us by spreading the word about the childhood hunger issue in the United States. It is happening in our schools and we should be embarrassed by that. We can solve this issue by feeding one child at a time. Help us feed the future of America by contributing at a variety of levels. Feed one child or 1,000, a whole school or an entire school district. Some family and local foundations choose to feed an entire district. Be a volunteer. Organize a new backpack drive as a volunteer. Have an event and have Blessings in a Backpack as the benefitting charity. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Tweet about us. Help spread the word.
This is how we have grown. As the national organization, we support our local volunteers. We help develop and strengthen their current systems and then keep out of their way because they know what works for their community.
Our volunteers are very passionate about childhood hunger. Our volunteers love making a difference for the children and they are having an impact on in their own communities.
How has the celebrity influence helped Blessings in a Backpack? Who are some of your biggest supporters?
Most of our celebrities are professional athletes. They get it because they understand the importance of healthy eating and nutrition. The NFL, the PGA and NASCAR are well represented at Blessings in a Backpack. One of our greatest supporters is Donald Driver, former Green Bay Packer and a Dancing with the Stars champion. Donald feeds five schools across the country. He also speaks on behalf of Blessings. Randall Cobb, also with the Packers, is involved.
We have a strong relationship with the PGA players Justin Rose, Jim Furyk, Jason Day and Jason Dufner. We are also actively engaged with the PGA Tour Wives Association.
Since becoming CEO, what makes you smile when you speak about the organization?
There are lots of favorites. The real success story in the last two years has been doubling the size of the national board. Because we are such a young organization, we didn’t have much of a national structure. We now have governance models, governance committees and oversight in place. We added additional staff to support our volunteers in the field. I think that’s been good.
A few months ago, we were chosen by the U.S. Conference on Mayors to have an official Blessings in a Backpack Day. We invited mayors across the country to go to a local Blessings school in their community, town or city to pack backpacks, to talk about childhood hunger and to encourage others to help make a difference in the lives of hungry kids. It was the first time we did this. It was exciting and very cool. Mayors from over 60 cities across the country came out that day to pack backpacks.
I think it was a game changer for us. We saw all the pieces come together. Our individual schools didn’t feel as grass roots anymore, but more part of a national movement. We came together and felt as one with each other, not just separate groups, but part of a bigger effort making a difference to feed hungry kids.
What are your challenges?
First, we are faced with rapid growth. We have to make sure we have the right structures to support the volunteers. Another challenge is always to get people to understand childhood hunger is a very real, yet invisible problem. Once we make people aware of the problem, we have to give them ways to get involved.
We are entering into a strategic planning process. On the other end of this process, we will know what we will look like when we grow up. We are excited about that. We received a foundation grant to support our planning work and we are eager to get started making plans to feed even more children.
I love what you are doing to combat the lack of healthy food choices in many neighborhoods and communities around the country where there are no or few good food options for kids.
Yes, the children call their backpacks a “blessing”. While we are not religious-based, it’s about the food being a blessing.
One day I was talking to a businessman in Louisville, KY. He was walking through a mall on a Friday. He knew about Blessings in a Backpack, but forgot it was Friday. He noticed a little girl sitting on the floor against a wall in the mall and overheard her talking to a friend. The friend asked what she had in her backpack and the little girl responded that this was the best day of the week because she got her “blessings”. We know it matters! We know it matters to these kids!!
On my first day at the job I went out to a backpack event. We were at a school where every child qualified. It was the week after Thanksgiving. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving the school sent additional food home because the children would be gone for 4 days. The school ran out of cheese sticks and some other items. So this little girl goes down the line and gets her food. She walked away and then started digging her backpack. She came back, stood in front of me and wanted to know why she didn’t have a cheese stick because she always counted on her cheese stick.
If I wasn’t yet convinced, that one moment convinced me as to the importance of the work of Blessings in a Backpack. For us it’s just a cheese stick. For the little girl, it was a critical part of her weekend. The cheese stick would help her get through her weekend. It was her cheese stick. That’s how important we are to kids. It matters.
Is your demographic kindergarten through 8th graders?
Yes. We are predominantly in elementary schools, but when a childcare center is part of a school, the eligible pre-K children participate. If we only have enough money to feed, let’s say 100 out of 500 kids in the school, normally the school will start with the youngest first – kindergarten, 1st graders, 2nd graders on so on.
Do you have any parting comments?
Yes. It would mean so much to us to have support from people in any way to help our cause. We have a very lean and mean staffing model and we’re always looking for additional help. We thrive because of the good graces of people, groups and companies doing pro bono work for us. I thank everybody for paying attention and understanding the problem. If you can help us in any way I’d love to welcome you aboard.
For more information on Blessings in a Backpack:
Website – www.blessingsinabackpack.org
Phone – (800) 872-4366
Twitter – @BlessinBackpack