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31 Backpacks provides for students when state help lapses

HOUGHTON — The nonprofit organization 31 Backpacks was founded, because its co-founders, Laurel Maki and Melissa Maki, identified a critical need within the Copper Country Intermediate School District: Many K-12 students throughout the CCISD are of low-income families and received free or reduced breakfasts and/or lunches. But on the weekends and during breaks from school, there are many children who may not have an adequate amount of food at home. The issue is not limited to the Western Upper Peninsula, nor it is a new problem.

Back on July 1, the Michigan Advance reported that data from mid-May disclosed that 17% of Michigan households with children reported sometimes, or often, not having enough to eat in the past seven days. This figure can be compared to 37% of households with incomes below $35,000, stated the Michigan Advance report.

The U.S. Census Bureau found the income numbers to be even lower.

According to that bureau, between 2015 and 2019, while the average per capita income in Michigan was $31,713. In Houghton County the figure was substantially lower, at $23,421. Baraga County’s average for the period was $22,920. For Calumet Township, the figure averaged slightly lower, at $22,903. In the city of Houghton, the average income was still lower, at $16,364.

These numbers, however, can be more closely scrutinized.

The 2017 poverty threshold published by the U.S. Census Bureau, stated that an individual under the age of 65, with no kids, falls under the poverty level at $12,752 in annual income. The figure increases with household size. A four-person household, with two children under 18 years old, reaches the poverty threshold at $24,858. These statistics, then, put the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on average, below both the state and the federal poverty level.

A Dec. 15 metrotimes.com report stated that using data from weekly U.S. census surveys, a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that in Michigan, 15% of parents are struggling to put food on the table, and 15% don’t know if they’ll be able to pay the rent or mortgage next month.

The handling of the pandemic at state and federal levels has only made hard economic situations worse.

Leslie Boissiere, vice president of external affairs with the Casey Foundation, metrotimes states, said bold action is needed to ensure children emerge from the pandemic healthy and safe.

“We have to get back to the basics,” Boissiere said. “We have to make sure that the poorest and most fragile families in our economy are taken care of and that we’re funding those programs that can have an impact and make sure that everybody’s basic needs are met in this country.”

The report offered several suggestions, including guaranteeing any COVID-19 vaccine be available without cost; improving access to programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; and boosting investments in education and ensuring schools are more equitably funded. A lack of equitable school funding across Michigan has been a contention among U.P. residents for years.

The Detroit Free Press reported on Dec. 16 that last month, about 731,000 Michigan residents said they didn’t have enough food to eat, according to the most recent data from Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. Nearly 284,000 said they are not up to date on their rent or mortgage payments or aren’t sure if they can make next month’s bills. Overall, about 2.4 million Michiganders said they expect a loss of income going into December.

In the Copper Country, 31 Backpacks relies heavily on donations from businesses, food pantries, and cash donations from private sources. Laurel Maki said the organization can always use more cash donations, which they use to purchase, not only food, but hygiene products, as well. While Michigan’s SNAP program provides for food, it does not offer assistance with basic necessities such as deodorant, feminine hygiene products, or even tooth paste. Non-food items are a big reason 31 Backpacks accepts cash donations.

“We absolutely don’t want food donations,” said Maki. “The reason for that is we don’t distribute canned goods, bags of beans, it has to be something — we keep in mind that there could be a five-year-old that is preparing the food for themselves. That said, some of the food is not family oriented, such as a box of spaghetti noodles and canned sause, or tomato sauce with meat, that sort of thing — but, we certainly do not want food donated; it has to be very specific. All the food is purchased.”

For their Winter Break Big Pack food distribution, last week, 31 Backpacks provided for 136 families throughout the CCISD.

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