Blessing in a Backpack — Nourishing Children Beyond the School Day

June 2014 View more

NMAG1112_NeighborhoodIn 2010, Ramona Ustian reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro after a five-day climb. The achievement was unforgettable, but so were the people of Africa. Ustian noticed how hard they worked and sacrificed for the basics in life, while so many Americans had much more than they needed.

These same feelings of benevolence spurred Ustian to action when she met Stan Curtis, the founder of the Louisville-based non-profit organization, Blessings in a Backpack ( When she learned that more than 62% of public school students who receive federally funded breakfast and lunch at school have a chance of going hungry on the weekend, Ustian found a mountain to climb right in her backyard. Blessings in a Backpack (BIB) currently feeds nearly 50,000 impoverished elementary school children nationwide by providing backpacks of ready-to-eat, accessible food to bring home every Friday afternoon from school.

“I couldn’t believe how great the need was,” said Ustian. “I thought about how grouchy I get when I’m hungry and knew this could make a big difference in children’s lives.”

Filling Up on Friday

BIB programs are launched on a local level by anyone willing to adopt a school and commit to filling backpacks at the school for a minimum of three years, at $2 a week per child, for the 38-week school year. As owner of Thomas Coffee, a gourmet coffee wholesaler, Ustian stepped up as a corporate sponsor in 2010. She approached the principal at Beaupre Elementary School in Aurora, where the majority of students were receiving free or reduced meals, and pledged $32,000 to sponsor backpacks for 400 children at the school.

Every Friday afternoon, a team of volunteers obtains food from partnering grocers, then fills the backpacks, and distributes them to the children as they leave for the weekend.  The backpack specifically targets students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The children must be able to open and eat the food themselves, even without electricity or water. Backpack items include instant oatmeal, granola bars, cheese and crackers, juice boxes, fruit, canned fruit, pasta, or soup.

BIB reduces truancy on Friday’s, since the children want to be present to receive their food backpack. On Monday, they return to school well fed, and the school notices better behavior, fewer trips to the nurse’s office, and better overall academic performance, said Ustian.

Beyond the Backpack

More than 2,000 students currently benefit from BIB in Illinois, and judging by the hundreds of thank you notes from the children, it’s evident that the backpacks nourish both body and soul. “Most of these kids have parents that aren’t around after school,” said Ustian. “The backpack full of food tells them that someone cares.”  The generosity of the backpack also extends beyond the recipient. “Many students tell us they look forward to sharing the food with their extended families and neighbors who are also in need,” Ustian added.

In January, BIB was chosen as the 2012 Charity of the Year by People Magazine. “The grass roots effort of the program appealed to the magazine,” said Ustian. “BIB is run so much by volunteers, and the impact is so great for very little money per child.”  The charity’s success stories have already helped raise $350,000 for the national organization since January.

Ustian currently serves as chair of the National BIB Organization, but works hard to gain local visibility by obtaining corporate sponsorships and organizing fundraisers. Just like she did with Mount Kilimanjaro, Ustian is heading relentlessly towards her goal, which is to continue support of Beaupre Elementary School, and add more local schools to the BIB program.