Backpack program feeds the kids

Posted on July 10th in News


Donations needed to keep program functioning

by Lindy Steeves
Burns Times-Herald


It is easy for teachers to sense when their students are hungry. Toward the middle of the day, children are less attentive, quicker to be distracted and in need of sustenance. The breakfast they consumed in the morning has long since worn off, and most are counting down until the bell signals the lunch hour.

For most students, there is no question of whether or not they will receive food throughout the day. During the school year, Monday through Thursday, they will receive breakfast and lunch from the school, and on the weekends, all their meals will be served at home. However, there are children who do not have this assurance.

In 2010, Oregon was second only to the District of Columbia for the highest state-wide hunger rate. Within Harney County, 33.7 percent of children under 18 live in poverty.

With the help of an anonymous donation, Harney County residents Evelyn Neasham, Sheila Cunningham and Hobe Tiller, with the Elks Lodge, have partnered up to try and change this.

At the end of the 2013 school year, they began a trial run of their Harney Backpacks program. This program sends a preselected Slater Elementary student home on Thursday with a backpack packed with the meals they would have received from the school. The backpack full of meals ensures that the child will receive food over the weekend.

The children range from 6-11 years old. This means that the meals must be easy enough for the students to prepare without adult assistance. To deal with this, the team has joined forces with Amy Dobson, a nutritionist for Harney District Hospital, to ensure that the meals are nutritious and easy for the elementary students to prepare and consume. The Elks Lodge has also provided financial and community support.

The teaching staff of Slater Elementary helped start the program by “earmarking” the 25 students they felt most needed the additional food.

During the 6-7 week trial, it became apparent that the program was necessary and could be successful.

“This is absolutely beneficial. It’s beneficial to the students; it’s beneficial to the teachers. The teachers of Slater reported that the students receiving the assistance were more alert and attentive to lessons than they had been before,” Neasham said.

“We know that children need three meals a day, but the two that they receive from us are certainly helping. It’s nutrition they may not otherwise receive,” Neasham said.

For now, the Harney Backpacks program is localized to Slater Elementary. Organizers plan to continue to provide assistance with the start of the new school year. Their main goal is to eventually support the students of both Hines Middle School and Burns High School with their program. Before they make this step, the group is striving to achieve financial stability.

“We don’t want to move on to the high school and middle school before we know that this program is stable,” Neasham said.

Such stability has been proven possible by other counties with similar programs. Before starting Harney Backpacks, Neasham and Cunningham researched Coos County. The Coos County school districts supply 700 students per week with enough food for the weekends.

Unfortunately, the program cannot run on the original donation for much longer. Even after a $1,000 donation from the Elks Lodge to start the coming school year, the program needs community support to stay functioning.

The goal of the Harney Backpacks program is to ensure that no child wants for food while they are in school. During the 2014 school year, they  hope to introduce systems where the community can easily donate to these children. Another way to contribute that may be implemented would allow citizens of Harney County to sponsor a child for a week or month at a time.


The team has found that $5 can feed a student for a week, and $20 can feed a student for a month.

Those who have questions or wish to donate  should contact Evelyn Neasham at 541-493-1987.

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