Bags of dry beans and loaves of bread.
Jars of peanut butter and boxes of cereal and pancake mix.
Volunteers deployed around tables inside the food pantry of St. Francis of Assisi Church in the City of Newburgh rushed to fill a gaping need – stuffing plastic grocery bags and backpacks with provisions for hundreds of homeless and hungry school children in the Newburgh Enlarged School District.
For years the district has used the so-called “backpack” program to ensure children do not go hungry, especially when they’re home for the weekends and not able to eat breakfast and lunch at school.
It is a program celebrating an expansion, thanks to funding provided last year by Orange County. And Executive Steve Neuhaus stopped by the pantry to see the fruits of that funding – canned and dry goods that will feed more children than the program originally could serve.
About $375,000 was designated in September 2015 for “Orange Cares,” a new partnership with the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley. Funding has covered backpack programs in Chester, Highland Falls, Middletown and Newburgh. The goal is to expand the program to Port Jervis and Valley Central, Neuhaus said.
“I think it’s key because a lot of places are afraid of the stigma and they’re afraid to start the program because of the stigma they’re going to have with it,” he said. “At the same time, there’s young men and women and their families that are suffering.”
Newburgh’s school district started distributing care packages to students four years ago. Students are given backpacks and each week they receive food prepared and delivered by volunteers at St. Francis.
Roughly 30 kids were served the first year, said Bill Morgan, homeless liaison for the Newburgh school district. By the end of this year, the program will have served an estimated 560, he said.
Last year, the district identified 841 homeless students, the seventh-largest total among all districts in the state, Morgan said.
“We can’t have academic success until the basic needs of a student are met,” he said. “By having this backpack program, it just gives them one extra layer of stability so that, one day, they can have that academic success that they have the right to.”