A child attending a public school in northern Polk County receives a backpack each Friday filled with canned goods and fresh foods as part of the kidsPACK program, but he doesn’t take it inside his house when he gets home.

“(He) has a hole in his yard and he puts his food in it and puts a kind of planted pot on top of it because he lives with his father, who will not allow him to let (school officials) know there’s no food in the house,” said Patty Strickland, the director of Polk’s kidsPACK program. “So he has to wait until his father either leaves or goes to sleep. That’s reality for him. But he’s still able to eat because the school has notified us to this situation … some of the conditions that these children live in will just break your heart.”

Strickland gave a report to the Polk County School Board on Tuesday about kidsPACK, a non-profit organization supported by community leaders, corporate sponsors and volunteers “dedicated to feeding disadvantaged children” by giving them food-filled backpacks to bridge the gap between when they eat free breakfasts and lunches at school during the week.

Strickland said the number of students participating in the program has quadrupled in the last four years.  During the 2018-2019 school year, they served 1,100 students and now have nearly 4,000 at 81 schools – half of all Polk County public schools, including charter schools.

In Lakeland, 29 schools participate.

Strickland explained that parents don’t sign the kids up for the program; schools notify the district’s HEARTH program, which helps homeless children. KidsPack officials aren’t given a name or any identifying information – only that there is a child in need. Strickland then ensures that they have the funding to feed that child and any siblings for the entirety of the school year — $428 a school year. That includes buying food, paying for gas to deliver the backpacks and a small administrative cost. A small army of volunteers stuffs the backpacks each week.

“One of the things that we don’t want to do is we do not want to start a child into a feeding program where they become very dependent upon that food on the weekend or holidays and then say, ‘Oh, I don’t have money to buy the food,’ ” Strickland said.

The program buys some food in bulk directly from large companies like ConAgra, which makes and sells products under various brand names that are available in supermarkets, restaurants, and food service establishments.

But with food prices rising in the last year, some companies have cut back the amount they sell, and delivery dates get pushed back.

“Two weeks ago they sent me 800 cases of 12 and we’re feeding almost 4000 children, so it’s not happening,” Strickland said. “So, basically, what we do is at that point is send (word) out to the community and say, ‘Can you go to the grocery store? Can you go wherever you shop and pick up Chef Boyardee?’ ”

Rising costs on most consumer goods has had a ripple effect that Strickland said has caused the increase in the number of children they serve.  A family in Lake Wales has to send their children to school for a shower because they don’t have running water at home. Apartment and home prices have soared, forcing some people out of their homes.

“Just two weeks ago, I had a call from a school that a mother lost where they were living because the rent had increased by $500 and they could not afford it,” Strickland said. “It was a mom and five children, which are now living in a car, and asked if we can help. These are situations that you and I don’t even think is possible … It’s not our reality, but it is the children and the families’ that they live in.”

School Board members Lisa Miller and Kay Fields both said they knew of volunteers who could help pack backpacks. Miller said special education students who are transitioning out of the school system and into adulthood need job training skills and would be happy to pitch in, while Fields said students at Girls Inc., a nonprofit that she operates, could also volunteer.

“The bottom line is that God has always provided an avenue and I have to say one thing about Polk County — it is always the most giving, committed to our children of anybody I’ve ever seen,” Strickland said. “And one of the things that I always tell people – and I am very adamant about this — just because I feed them does not mean these children will succeed. But if I can feed their fuel in their tummy, and the schools can feed their minds, these children have a way out of poverty. It has to be both.”

Strickland referred them, anyone who wants to donate and anyone who wants to help stuff backpacks to go to the organization’s website, https://www.kidspack.org/

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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