HOUGHTON, Mich. (WJMN) – 31 Backpacks is a nonprofit organization that started in 2012 to help combat food insecurity in the Copper Country.
They provide food on the weekends for children who are in free and reduced lunch programs during the week at school. Laurel Maki, president of the organization, says the idea came from her sister.
“I got a call from my sister and brother-in-law who lived in Lake Linden and had a place in Arizona and they saw a backpack program on T.V., news program in Arizona and found out that kids were getting free breakfast and lunch at school and snacks and were going hungry on weekends, so this group started the program in Arizona and my sister called and said you need to do this I know it’s needed in the Copper country,” said Laurel. “And I said ‘ok’ and so didn’t really think much of it, I thought well I can do this.”
Her daughter Melissa and a family friend started the organization together. Initially, they started with packing food at home for one school district.
“We were working out of our personal residence and we started bringing products home so we could pack on a weekly basis, we started with one school district and once we got comfortable with that then we moved on to the next and so on and so forth,” said Melissa. “But when we started taking in a large inventory of food we realized that going up and down the stairs dozens and dozens of times probably wasn’t going to work that well for us.”
Now, they provide weekend meals and snacks for seven different school districts. Before COVID-19 began impacting people, they had roughly 225 students in the program. After the onset of the pandemic, that number rose to 2,100.
“Right around spring break last year we were around 225 and then the shutdown happened and we jumped up to 2,100 students that were in the program and that covers Keweenaw County, Houghton County, and Baraga County,” said Melissa. “Right now our numbers are down again because we have so many homeschool students but certainly that number depending on how things go in the near future could jump significantly again.”
Every week on Wednesday, Laurel and Melissa go to Econofoods in Houghton to buy fresh fruit then they meet volunteers at Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Hancock to pack the food. Students get three fresh pieces of fruit and enough food to last through the weekend. Foods are usually things that most elementary children could prepare on their own, like microwavable mac n’ cheese or instant oatmeal.
Students from Finlandia and MTU join in on some evenings to help pack along with community members. Ardys Maki a volunteer is a retired teacher. She says she comes out to help because her husband was helping and she knew students who were a part of the program.
“This area like many other areas especially in the U.P. or any rural area really has a lot of people that are food insecure,” said Maki. “We don’t necessarily notice them so much but when you look at the free and reduced lunch rate locally it’s quite high. So you know that there’s definite issues with food security a lot of people that don’t even have access to cars and things like that that are needing help in a lot of different ways.”
31 backpacks determines their success based on how kids do in school. Melissa says they don’t know who receives food, but some former students come to volunteer as adults or tell them after the fact that they were in the program. She says several have gone on to college, trade schools or to serve in the military.
“Food is very essential to the learning process, if you can’t concentrate in school it’s very hard to take in the information you’re given and storing that away, you need some brain power which comes from food,” said Melissa. “That’s what we look at, that’s what our sucesses are is kids succeeding in school.”
The food is purchased with donations. They are allowed to purchase food from the Western U.P. food bank at a reduced cost and Econofoods offers them a discount. For winter break they send enough food home with students for the entire break. It’s referred to as the “big pack.”
“We are looking at the upcoming holiday season and winter break will be coming up in December typically we do what people call the big pack where we send home enough food to cover what is usually a nine to sixteen day break for these students to make sure that they have something for that long period,” said Melissa.
Donations are essential for this program because of the amount of food it supplies to students especially over the long breaks. Now with the pandemic, they could be providing more students with food.
“I’d like to stress that it is extremely expensive for both the winter breaks and the spring breaks and the shutdown over the summer was quite expensive as well so donations are always key for us,” said Melissa.
Donations can be made by contacting Melissa or Laurel. Call (906) 231-1472, visit 31 backpacks on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.