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  • Jim Townsend

Portland Backpacks for Bellies

According to Feeding America, America’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, one in every six children in Michigan struggles with hunger. Statistics from the US Department of Agriculture show that in 2017, 7.7 percent of households with children (2.9 million households) were food insecure for both children and adults. While many local children with food insecurity are able to receive assistance at school, the weekend often causes hunger issues.

A new local non-profit named Portland Backpacks for Bellies aims to fight that weekend void. Founders Michelle VanSlambrouck, Carri Thayer, and Holly Blastic are in the final stages of getting the project up and running. In an email to the Beacon, the founders said, “Portland Backpacks for Bellies has been in the works for quite some time, but like any new project, especially one of this potential magnitude, we knew we needed a solid foundation if we were to create a successful, long-lasting organization. We are in the final planning stages, and we’ll begin fundraising very soon - - ideally before the end of the year. As soon as we have enough funds to provide meals through the end of the school year, we will kick off the program! We could not be more excited for our first delivery of weekend meals to local students!”

The founders are grateful to their early supporters, saying “we would not be where we are without the help of so many members of this amazing community! We will be working closely with Portland Public Schools. We are also talking with some other organizations, and we hope to be able to announce a partnership or two soon!”

Founders Michelle VanSlambrouck, Carri Thayer, and Holly Blastic

Their decision to start the organization was rooted in the global epidemic of childhood hunger which affects many in our local community. They said, “At this time, Portland public schools have a total of 518 students receiving free lunch and 164 students receiving reduced-price lunch, for a total of 682 students. This represents almost 40% of our student population. They need help getting meals during the school week, and we know this need carries over to an obvious need during the weekends.”

“Our program will benefit the community just as similar programs are benefiting communities across the country. These students will be able to take better advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them without having to think about where their next meal may be coming from. This program allows kids to realize their talents, become more confident, and think about where they want to go in life. It is essential for the Portland, Michigan community.”

For area residents interested in helping this cause, they are urged to "like" the group’s Facebook page, to share the page with others, and to watch for updates.

The founders said, “Very shortly we will be able to begin accepting donations, and we encourage the community to donate any amount they can. One of our biggest fundraisers will be through an "Adopt-a-Backpack" program where individuals, families, groups, and businesses will be able to sponsor a backpack for around $130 per year. Once we hit our fundraising goal, we will be looking to recruit volunteers to help with various things such as unpacking the food deliveries, packing the weekend meals, and delivering those meals to the schools once a week. We've started a list of interested volunteers, so we encourage people to contact us through Facebook if they're interested in volunteering.”

They added, “We also have individuals who have committed to donating to the organization once we are ready to accept donations. Did we mention how amazing this community is?”

The group is working with the Portland Public Schools to send out applications for parents to sign their children up for the weekend meals. The application will also have a spot to commit to donating and volunteering, as well to donate and receive help. They stated, “Because this is a brand-new program, we will need to see the initial sign up before we will know precisely when we will be able to begin sending the meals home. It's imperative, though, that we have enough funds to provide for the students' who are signed up through the end of this school year.”

The founders also want to clarify a few points on the program:

• Backpacks will be given to participating students each Friday in their schools.

• They will be filled with ready-to-eat, or easy to prepare, foods such as granola bars, oatmeal, shelf-stable milk, fruit, and crackers.

• Backpacks will be distributed to students in a discreet, and caring manner. Students’ names will be kept confidential by the school and not shared with the Portland Backpacks for Bellies program.

For more information, please contact us at

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