For students who face food uncertainty, free or reduced breakfast and/or lunch programs at their schools are crucial; for some, it’s their only nutritious meal of the day. But when school isn’t in session, those missed meals make an impact. Backpack Pals Bethlehem provides students in the Bethlehem Area School District with healthy meals when they aren’t guaranteed breakfast or lunch due to school being closed.
Nikki Testa, a mother and Bethlehem, PA resident, started the program in 2012 after hearing about Backpack Pals, which aids students in Easton, PA.
“I was in church one day listening to someone speak about an initiative in Easton, and it got my mind rolling to wonder if we had something for kids in Bethlehem over long holiday weekends. The following week I went to the school district to ask them, and they said they had not had a program like this. So I started small in East Hills Middle School because that’s where my oldest was in school. Slowly but surely, Backpack Pals Bethlehem grew to 210 schools in the Bethlehem Area School District,” Testa said.
According to The Morning Call, in 2018, almost 60 percent of Bethlehem students qualified for free or reduced meals. That’s thousands of students who may be going hungry or eating unhealthy meals when schools are closed, through no fault of their own. Testa is passionate about helping them.
“My goal is pretty simple: I don’t believe that food is a privilege, and no kid should ever have to worry about eating,” Testa said.
Today, thanks to her program, 250 students per month receive backpacks containing breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks to eat when schools are closed. The food items are nutritious, mostly non-perishable (although Testa includes fresh fruit when possible) and easy for students to prepare themselves, if needed. The bags, which go home with students on the last day before the school break, also contain other essentials, such as toiletries and school supplies. The schools help pinpoint which students could benefit from the program and send an opt-in form to parents, who may choose to sign their child up for Backpack Pals.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented a particular challenge as schools closed and children were stuck at home indefinitely. But Testa was moved by the outpouring of support and help that she received for Backpack Pals during quarantine.
“My entire porch and down my sidewalk and driveway were filled with boxes from my Amazon list. And because of that continued support, I was able to do 52,000 meals from March when we shut down to the end of May,” she said.
However, she identifies sourcing donations—in this case, food and items for the bags—as a consistent challenge. Getting help from the appropriate people in the district is another obstacle that Testa hopes to overcome in order to help more students.
To donate or learn how you can support Backpack Pals Bethlehem, please visit their page at HSIFiscalSponsor.com.