The Red Bank-based Backpack Crew (BPC) program has met and overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program typically supports more than 100 area families by supplying food donations during the school year. The most unique aspect of the BPC is the method of distribution.
Backpacks are used as the means of conveyance. They are packed with an array of donated nonperishables such as spaghetti, soup, tuna, canned vegetables, macaroni and cheese, crackers, granola bars, and oatmeal. The foods are intended as weekend supplies for the families of students who depend on reduced cost lunch programs during the week. Each backpack has two options for breakfast, lunch and dinner plus snacks.
On Fridays, the backpacks are delivered to the nurse’s office of 14 schools in Middletown, Highlands, Atlantic Highlands and Red Bank. The students of participating families then take the backpack home for the weekend. Each Monday, they return the empty backpacks and the process is repeated.
School closings caused by the pandemic shattered the established distribution chain, but BPC founder and Director Suzanne Dice responded quickly to ensure the food dissemination continued unabated.
Ironically, the names of the recipients were not known by the BPC. The nurse’s office of each school, in addition to being a key component of distribution, was the keeper of beneficiaries’ contact information. Dice reached out to each nurse with a proposal of delivery direct to homes. To establish the revised distribution procedure, the nurses contacted the families to enlist them in the revised plan and establish delivery addresses. About 80 percent signed on.
However, the modified process required more than 80 individual deliveries as compared to the 14 school stops previously needed. This necessitated the commandeering of six addition vehicles and as many additional drivers. School nurses are among the new volunteers making deliveries. Doorstop drop-offs are now made over five days each week.
Availability of food donations has also become an issue. Previously, much of the inventory was sourced through major food drives by schools, scout troops and VFW Post 2179 of Port Monmouth. All food drives have been canceled due to virus concerns and restrictions, ending this source temporarily.
BPC has depended on Fulfill, formerly the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, as a provider of the needed goods. In addition, individuals have stepped up and made donations that are dropped off at the United Methodist Church of Red Bank, which serves as the BPC base of operations. Tiger Schulmann’s Martial Arts of Red Bank has been a longtime supporter and serves as a donation drop-off location as well.
Currently a staff of 15 volunteers dedicate their time in sorting, packing and delivering. Recent social distancing standards have presented additional obstacles that have been mitigated through scheduling and work area modifications.
Last summer, the BPC added a food pantry at the United Methodist Church location. The pantry is open to the public twice a month on the first and third Mondays. “All are welcome,” Dice exclaimed. Nearly 90 families were accommodated in a recent opening of the pantry.
The Backpack Crew was conceived in 2013 by Keith and Suzanne Dice along with their three children. The Dice family acted in response to Superstorm Sandy, as they came to realize many families struggled months after the storm. It was initially operated in the basement of their Middletown residence. The project outgrew the confines of the Dice abode and found a new home at the United Methodist Church in Red Bank. The BPC has since flourished with the church’s support and assistance.
Fair Haven resident Barbara Roguski has been a BPC volunteer since the beginning.
“Addressing the needs of food-insecure children has been a cause dear to me for many years,” stated Roguski. “I want all children to be healthy and be able to concentrate on their studies. At deliveries, I see the relief and gratitude of the families. I can’t thank enough those who donate food for me to pack.”
Volunteer Christy Jenkins, of Lincroft, added, “I am honored to be a part of the Backpack Crew, having watched it grow from Suzanne’s passion project into such a vital service, right here in our own neighborhoods. During this unprecedented situation, people need a helping hand now more than ever, and Suzanne’s commitment and passion for helping families in need is inspiring. Organizations like The Backpack Crew give people the opportunity to step up and come together as a community, even in the face of adversity. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Dice said her family began the program to “help fill in gaps that occur.”
“The gap we are addressing is the lack of weekend food for local kids. And currently it is a huge gap now that schools are closed during a difficult time. Putting food right into the hands of those that need it the most has always been our goal. We are blessed to be able to still do that with today’s obstacles.”
For more information about the Backpack Crew or to make a donation, visit BackpackCrew.org.