31 Backpacks and food bank feeding students

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring economic hardships to Copper Country families, 31 Backpacks and the Western Upper Peninsula Food Bank work tirelessly with local schools to keep hungry families fed. Last week, 31Backpacks and the WUPFB helped get groceries to five school districts in the Copper Country ISD, and provided food to six more school districts on Friday.

The Western Upper Peninsula Food Bank had crates and crates of food ranging from canned goods to rice, to cereal and milk to veggies. School administration staff browsed the stacks of food with Laurel Maki of 31 Backpacks nearby. The schools shop for what they need and tell Laurel what they were picking up, and the weight. The food bank buys per pound, and 31Backpacks pays the bill to the food bank. As a non-profit, 31Backpacks qualifies to purchase food at 20 cents a pound.

“So for the first wave, the first half of schools we provided for, it came to about 10,600 pounds. This is going to be more like 15,000 pounds because these are the bigger schools,” Maki said. Besides food, 31Backpacks and the food bank have been working together to supply needy families with toiletries on a previous date. “These families can’t buy much-needed toiletries with WIC and SNAP benefits. How can you wash your hands without being able to buy soap? I order dish soap, laundry soap, toilet paper, paper towel, tooth brushes, toothpaste, deodorant.” People can’t stay properly hygienic if they can’t afford these basic household items. “Families shouldn’t have to worry about running out of this or that in order to pay their bills. Maki makes it very clear that “that’s all donation, we’re non-profit. We make no money from this.”

Belinda Maki with Chassell schools said they’re “just browsing and rounding up what we need.” With a wide variation of food stuffs to choose from, the schools are able to come up with a well-rounded cart to make sure the in-need families they help out are properly fed and meeting nutritional needs. “There’s only a little bit of a shortage with some things, everybody ordering certain things for meals, very few things are running short, but we kind of compromise.”

With so many families being served, minute organization isn’t a science, but “nobody complains, and there’s a lot of happy families with this. Every one has been appreciating this.” The schools distribute in a completely contactless form. “We give the boxes of food once a week, every Monday. We push it out on the sidewalk and then each family comes and gets it. There is no contact.”

“The schools don’t have a budget,” Laurel Maki explained, “31Backpacks is paying for it. We have no clue what it’s going to cost. I was really quite nervous, but Jerry, the gentleman in charge here keeps saying, ‘you’re credit is good with me.’ But this will come to $6,000 to $7,000 for these schools. We’re not breaking it down by schools.” The schools pick up what they need and distribute the food in their districts, but the bill comes as “one lump sum” to 31Backpacks.

Jerry Jackovac works tirelessly with 31Backpacks to make sure as many families as they can serve, stay fed and healthy. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Western Upper Peninsula Food Bank has has seen a skyrocketing amount of business. “It’s probably a 100% increase. It’s gone way up. Especially with the schools.” The food bank contracts with Feeding America to bring locals the best prices on bulk food that they can. “Feeding America doesn’t give us anything. We pay for our food,” Jackovac said.

Times are changing for the food bank, at least in the current situation. “When I first started doing this 50 years ago, there were 300 to 400 items I could bring in to our area. It’s the first thing I do every morning when I get here at 6 a.m. I hit the computer and check the list for things I can get to the food bank. 40 items,” Jackovac said. “That’s what’s killing us. It’s so dang hard to get the product that we could use and distribute. It’s not there anymore.” Food banks are struggling to keep stocked, but Jackovac does his best every morning at 6 a.m. to make sure the area has food at the best prices possible, keeping a lot of people fed. “The food bank makes money, but what it does make goes to the lights, to the cooling systems. What money it makes keeps it open. We don’t get government funding of any kind, which is why we have to sell the food we buy. But none of it leaves the bank, really. If you knew how little I made, you’d laugh,” Jackovac laughed. “There’s not a tax payer’s penny that comes in here. We have the lowest paid staff in the state of Michigan. We put the money where it’s supposed to go; to the people.”

“I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” Jackovac said. “I’ll do this until the day I die,” he said with conviction. With the Western Upper Peninsula Food Bank and 31Backpacks working in conjuncture with the CCISD, on last Friday alone, were able to get food for 633 families in need. The donations of locals, the dedication of the schools, 31Backpacks and the WUPFB are a perfect example of Copper Country Strong and the giving nature of the Copper Country.


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