In 2013, the Bigfork Rotary Club approached the Bigfork Elementary School with an idea — they wanted to provide socks and shoes to local kids in the springtime. There were already groups providing winter gear, so they settled on a project to outfit them with spring essentials.
The school was on board.
The club was excited.
Until someone mentioned there were local kids going hungry.
“All of us [Rotarians] in the room went — ‘What do you mean we have hungry kids?’” said club member and program organizer Heather Howlett. “Our gears shifted at that moment. We have something bigger that we’re dealing with.”
The club members learned that, at the time, 50 percent of Bigfork elementary and middle school students were on the free or reduced lunch program — where children of low-income households receive meals for free or at a discounted rate.
The Rotary wanted to fill the gap for children who were identified as likely to experience a food shortage over the weekend, when they couldn’t rely on the school’s lunch program. To do so, they launched the No Kid Hungry in Bigfork Weekend Backpack Project in October of 2013 and sent home 28 “backpacks” of food their first weekend. The club purchased the food through the Montana Food Bank Network, and distributed the bags to educators who discretely placed the items inside a student’s belongings. The rotary modeled their program off of a similar endeavor organized by the Columbia Falls Rotary, and now serves an average of 80 students per week during all 40 weeks of the school year.
In the first year, No Kid Hungry in Bigfork only provided weekend food supplies to elementary-aged students, but as the years went on, the program grew to encompass middle and high school students, along with pupils at the Swan River School.
Students are identified for the program by their membership in the free or reduced lunch program, by teachers or counselors, or by the local food bank. Every six weeks, Bigfork Rotary hosts a stuffing party, where they prepare 600 bags for local students. The Bigfork Rotary fundraises between $12,000-18,000 per year to operate No Kid Hungry in Bigfork. which they generate through annual fundraisers and local donations.
This year, they’re trying something a little different. Instead of sourcing their commodities from the Food Bank Network, they’re purchasing the items themselves to better cater toward the students’ preferences. They send participants home with nonperishable items that don’t require a lot of prep work, such as macaroni and cheese in individual cups. On long weekends or breaks, the kids go home with larger bags and the Rotary also provides them with Christmas gifts during the holidays.
Howlett said the program serves an important, although perhaps lesser-known need in the Bigfork community.
“You look at the Bigfork community and you automatically assume that we don’t have needs like other cities do because we’re right on Flathead Lake, we’re this resort type community,” she said. “But when we learned that we had hungry kids, it’s been one of our biggest priorities at rotary. … It’s the glue of our rotary club right now — we don’t want hungry kiddos in our community.” »
To get involved with the No Kid Hungry in Bigfork Weekend Backpack Project, contact Heather at (406) 260-1901 or by email at Hap2Hah@hotmail.com. The Rotary is looking for volunteers to help with stuffing parties, donated food items from a specific product list and financial assistance.