How does weekend food affect families and children ?

Feeding America

How does weekend food affect families and children ?  We have 12 programs in Jefferson County who are dedicated to bringing weekend food to children and families.  Most programs do regular evaluations of the success or areas of growth needed to shape programs for excellence.  University of Illinois Urbana did a study for Feeding America.  Feeding America is the Hunger in America organization that is the steering wheel for spokes of Regional Food Banks who provide food to food pantries.

Please encourage your child’s school to consider partnering with a weekend food program and to help them in evaluating results of program like families being less sick and child having greater success in school.  Please carefully read this report and send us your feedback to 

The Family Resiliency Center for the University of Illinois Urbana does great work around practical ways to bring the trauma of hunger down and out. 


Senior Hunger
Hunger and Poverty
Learn more about child hunger in America

This report presents the results of an evaluation conducted in 2011-2012, with support from
Morgan Stanley, for the BackPack Program at Feeding America, a weekend feeding program
administered by local food banks to reduce childhood hunger. The Eastern Illinois Food Bank,
located in Urbana, Illinois, was the Feeding America partner selected for the evaluation. Three
key areas were examined during the evaluation:
First, close to three hundred families, drawn from sixteen schools in six counties served by the
Eastern Illinois Food Bank, were surveyed on a quarterly basis from October 2011 to June 2012
about their experiences in coping with food insecurity (64% had children in the BackPack
Program, 36% of families did not). Responses from surveys by families with children in the
BackPack Program were compared to families who had children that may have been eligible for
the program, but did not participate due to limited program resources (comparison group).
Second, seventy-six parents were interviewed about their experiences in coping with food
insecurity and in participating in the program (54 parents had children who participated in the
BackPack program and 22 parents had children who did not).
Third, school attendance was compared for those children participating in the BackPack Program
with those potentially eligible for the program, but not receiving backpacks.
Glossary – Food Security Status
Food Secure – Access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.
Low Food Security – Reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet; little or no
indication of reduced food intake.
Very Low Food Security – Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and
reduced food intake.
Evaluation Findings
 73% of the households served by the BackPack Program were food insecure at the
beginning of the school year.
 77.9% of the households served by the BackPack Program reported using SNAP
(Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in the last 30 days, at the beginning of the
school year. Additionally, 45.3% of households also used food pantries and 35.2% of
households used both SNAP and food pantries. Therefore, at least half of households
participating in the BackPack program utilized multiple interventions to address food
 Controlling for differences between program participants and the non-participant group,
the BackPack Program has a small but significant effect on increasing attendance on
Fridays, the day backpacks are delivered to children.
 Overall, children who participated in the BackPack Program missed more school than
those in the comparison group. This is not a reflection of the BackPack Program;
however, it does reflect the importance of considering selection effects when examining
program impact. Also, further analysis shows that children in the BackPack program were
more vulnerable than the comparison group on a few measures.
 There was a statistically significant increase in the percent of families in the BackPack
Program (13%) who moved from low food insecure to food secure between October and
December in comparison to the families not receiving the BackPack (5%). However, over
50% of the families in the BackPack Program remained food insecure throughout the
school year.
 Although the BackPack program was originally conceived for child food insecurity, most
families shared the food and used it in preparation for family meals. The length of time
that food lasted in households varied based on a few key factors, but it was found that
food lasted just through the weekend for families with very low food security.
 For very low food secure households, participation in the BackPack Program was
perceived to have a big effect on their household budget. Twenty percent of the very low
food secure parents interviewed described the program as having a big effect on their
budgets whereas 9% of low food secure parents described the program as having a big
effect on their budgets.
 Unreliable and poor access to transportation is a major challenge for many of these
families. Insufficient means of transportation affects food shopping habits which may
prevent food insecure families from buying in bulk and taking advantage of lower cost
food outlets. Thus, the BackPack program is viewed as advantageous since the children
bring the food directly home.
 Parents mentioned summer time as a stressful period for allocating food. Parents noted
that having the children home from school, without access to the BackPack Program, and
feeding other children in the household, such as hungry teenagers, as real challenges.
 Many of the parents’ experienced poor physical health and this varied by food security
status. Forty-eight percent of parents reporting very low food security also reported fair
or poor health compared to 23% of low food secure parents and 15% of food secure
parents. The number of very low food secure parents reporting poor health was
significantly greater than the number of parents reporting low food security and the
number of parents reporting that they were food secure. Interview responses suggested
that poor health has consequences for meal planning and being able to plan ahead for
shopping and budgeting. Parents reported being too tired to plan for meals or to cook
and on occasion, turned these responsibilities over to older children.
 There is no universal experience in ways that families work to manage food insecurity
and parents identified different coping strategies during interviews. However, many
families expressed that the ability to plan ahead and budget time and money was an
important coping strategy.
 For some families living in more affluent communities, food insecurity and child hunger
was perceived as stigmatizing and there were limited available community resources. In
these instances, the BackPack Program was considered very beneficial.
Program Recommendations
 Although schools are doing a good job in selecting children likely at risk for weekend
hunger, additional training for school personnel about reliable indicators of food insecurity
may be helpful. For instance, with training, staff may be able to identify very low food
insecure children and households who may need additional resources and interventions
beyond the BackPack program, such as the National School Breakfast (NSB), SNAP,
SNAP-Ed, and Summer Food Service Programs (SFSP). Also, programs might want to
consider including brief measures such as two-item screens to identify families at risk for
food insecurity.
 Children whose families are at the margins of food insecurity may not qualify for public
programs but still benefit from weekend feeding programs. Therefore, it is recommended
that program selection should not be based entirely on free and reduced lunch
participation because it may miss hungry children who live in more affluent communities.
 Based on findings, most children shared items in their backpack with other family
members so food banks may want to consider targeting foods that can be incorporated
into family meals.
 Based on the in-depth interviews, many families indicated a need for assistance in meal
planning and more efficient ways to budget for food. The BackPack Program may offer
an opportunity to provide educational information about shopping and meal preparation.
Future Research Questions
 If the BackPack Program was paired with consistent use of National School Breakfast,
SNAP, Summer Food Service Programs, or regular school food pantry distributions
would circumstances improve for those who experience very low food security?
 What is the role of the parents’ or guardians’ physical health in sustaining food insecurity
with school age children?
 Many of the families in this evaluation had children under the age of five. Because we
know early nutrition can play a pivotal role in later development, would there be positive
benefits to weekend feeding programs delivered in other settings such as child care
centers, Head Start, and WIC?
 What are the dosage effects of the BackPack Program? Would very low food secure
households benefit more if a BackPack was sent home for every child in the household or
with greater frequency?
 Would a larger national survey allowing for examination of unobserved factors such as
changes in employment status, income, and number of people in the household, replicate
findings that the BackPack program may affect food security status?

This evaluation was funded by Feeding America with support from Morgan Stanley. We thank
Elaine Waxman and Morgan Stanley for seeing the value in evaluating this popular program. This
evaluation was built upon several years work in collaboration with the Eastern Illinois Food Bank.
We are especially appreciative of the support and partnership extended by Jim Hires and Andrea
Rundell of the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. We are grateful to the Christopher Family Foundation
and the University of Illinois Food and Family Program that funded the initial work. The
outstanding BackPack research staff included Brenda Koester, M.S., Meghan Fisher, Blake
Jones, Ph.D., Stephanie Sloane, PeiPei Setoh, and Elizabeth Ignowski. Several undergraduate
students in the Food and Family Program at the University of Illinois provided invaluable data
management support. Dr. Tom Weisner provided exceptional guidance in the use of the
Ecocultural Family Interview and mixed methods approaches to data analysis. The school
personnel in the BackPack Programs not only assisted us with recruitment but volunteered their
own time to make the BackPack program work. Finally, we thank the families who participated in
this evaluation. They willingly shared their experiences so that we might learn more about the
struggles of feeding hungry children. We are grateful for their candor and have learned from their
personal stories.

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