Charlee Noel stands in a line with other students from Brookfield Drama Club, each holding a plastic grocery bag.
The students walk in assembly-line fashion along a series of tables as other students and adults load their bags with items such as peanut butter, chocolate milk, crackers, apple sauce, macaroni and cheese, cereal and cookies.
The students work in a room next to the sanctuary at Brookfield United Methodist Church. Once full, the bags are tied off and placed in plastic containers.
The containers will be shipped to Brookfield Elementary School. Ultimately, the food will be stuffed into student backpacks on Fridays, for students who need a little food help to get through the weekend.
“It makes me feel sad that they need it, but it makes me feel good that we’re helping them,” said Charlee, an eighth-grader at Brookfield Middle School.
The Backpack Program is in its fifth year, providing food for 50 students a week. Changes are in store for the program, but it will continue, and organizers hope they can be more responsive to student needs in the future.
The Backpack Program functions under guidelines from Feeding America, a non-profit organization and network of food banks. Those guidelines are pretty strict, and Feeding American determines the menu, said Tracy Plyler, who runs the Brookfield Backpack Charitable Fund with Cathy Schatzel and Stefanie Bich.
Many schools in the area are moving to a different organizational structure for their backpack programs, and Brookfield is likely to do the same, she said. By creating a food pantry, the program will be able to choose the menu, accept food donations and have more control over how it purchases its food, Plyler said.
“We believe it’s going to be a lot cheaper,” said Plyler, one of two certified public accounts among the organizers. “It’s hard to raise money. We feel obligated to be diligent to these people who give.”
It costs about $9,000 a year to run the program, she said. Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley has gotten grants the last two years that have brought the local cost down to about $6,500, but Plyler added, “I think we can do way better than that.”
The fund still will purchase the bulk of its food through Second Harvest, she said.
“We’ll see what we can get through them and what we don’t have to get through them,” Plyler said.
Backpack Program organizers learned a lot by helping Brookfield Middle School create a food pantry last year, she said. The pantry allows students to choose their own food as well as personal care items and clothing.
The Backpack Program still will rely on its young and adult volunteers. Plyler knows what month it is by who is helping pack: National Honor Society in August, Interact Club in September and Brookfield Rotary Club in May. Other groups, including school athletic teams and cheerleaders and Girl Scouts, also have taken turns. Plyler said she likes providing an outlet for the students of something they can do together that is outside the normal club or sport activity.
Brookfield Methodist Church has partnered with the Backpack Program, since the program started functioning in October 2014, by unloading the food when it is delivered and providing space for packing and storage. When Plyler can’t make a Friday delivery to the school, church Pastor Dick Smith usually does it.
The church runs its own pantry and contributes personal care items to the middle school pantry and Mount Olive Baptist Church.
“It really opens your eyes to the need around here,” Smith said of the church’s pantry activities.