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Assistant Principal leads project to fight food insecurity for Owen Co. kids

Jefferson Award for Multiplying Good
Students help one another
Bags ready to go
LaGrange explains how the need has grown
Jefferson Award for Multiplying Good
Accepting donations
Posted at 4:13 PM, Mar 28, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-28 17:28:33-04

SPENCER — WRTV works to highlight the unsung heroes in our community each month with the prestigious Jefferson Award for Multiplying Good.

This month, we traveled to Spencer for a look at a community outreach operation feeding hundred of students each weekend.

"We just try to give a little bit of extra food to kids who may need it," said Elijah Johnson. "The main goal is just to help people."

Students help one another
Senior Elijah Johnson works with his service learning class to fill bags.

Johnson is a senior at Owen Valley High School and is part of a service learning class. His class takes time during their school day to have prepare and package bags full of food that will go to kids in need for over the weekend.

The stores in this room of the school are stocked with donated items and the whole process works like an assembly line.

Once the bags are packed with items, they are tied off and stashed on various rolling carts, which will eventually make their was to a school bus and then to several district area elementary schools in Spencer.

Bags ready to go
The food items are bagged up and put on carts to travel to various school buildings in the district.

"I know, personally. a lot of people this is helping," said Johnson about the "Backpack Buddies" program at Owen Valley. "We do hundreds of these a week."

The mission of the OV Backpack Buddies is to fight food insecurity in the school community and provide for kids who have little to know food when they go home for the weekend or on school breaks.

"This is pretty close to my heart," said Spencer Elementary School Assistant Principal Aaron LaGrange. "When you commit to a kids, to give them food for the weekend, you need to be in it."

LaGrange says this Backpack Buddies program is close to his heart as an educator and a parent.

LaGrange wears many hats in the district. In addition to his assistant principal role, he serves as the safety director for the district. He also is the community outreach liaison who helps leads the Backpack Buddies efforts.

He says in the Spencer-Owen School Corporation, distance and transportation are big factors when it comes to food insecurity.

LaGrange explains how the need has grown
LaGrange says they started serving 8 students back in 2017 and now it has grown to serving more than 200 each week.

"Spencer-Owen Community Schools makes up a large part of Owen County," said LaGrange. "We've got about 40 buses that we operate each day and if you that morning time and that afternoon time getting the kids to and from school, it's about 3 thousand miles a day."

He said if students in the district are hungry, it isn't easy to get to a grocery store. So back in 2017, they started a student assistance fund to help kids feel more confident and be able to maximize their learning potential.

"It doesn't start with math," said LaGrange. "It's starts with being safe, being fed and being sheltered. If you have those core elements, then learning is optimal."

In that process, they realized that kids were needing some supplemental food over the weekend. The program started with only 8 students but has since grown to more than 220 each week.

OV Backpack Buddies room
In this room, food lines the shelves and students work quickly to fill and load bags on carts.

Part of that is awareness. More students are aware of the Backpack Buddies program and students will recommend the help to their friends who are struggling. But also the need has grown in this post-pandemic era where groceries are expensive.

LaGrange says this would not be possible if it weren't for the incredible support from the community and nearby businesses.

Businesses and organizations send volunteers to the school to help bag meals, especially before students go on longer breaks.

Several businesses, churches, organizations and individuals donate money to purchase food. The Junior ROTC there helps to break down boxes and make sure the OV Backpack Buddies room is set up and ready for the day.

"This would not be possible, if they would not do what they've done," said LaGrange.

Now the school gets calls from other schools in the area, and all over, asking how they've been able to make this program a success for students.

Accepting donations
The school district accepts certain food donations but also monetary donations to keep this program going each week.

LaGrange says his best advice is to start small and go from there. And to make sure you can follow through on your promise to feed the students each week.

He adds this effort is a community initiative where a number of different community stakeholders are involved.

LaGrange was presented with the prestigious Jefferson Award for Multiplying Good for the month of March, but adds he is accepting the award on behalf of everyone who makes this program possible for students.

Partnerships include local churches, civic groups and the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

Bags travel to meet students where they are
The bags get loaded on buses and sent to various schools at the end of each week.

Currently, the OV Backpack Buddies program is able to sustain itself through these partnerships but the demand for this service continues to grow and so monetary donations can be a huge help.

It costs more than 1-thousand dollars a month to feed these students. Donations of certain food items are also accepted.

For more information, contact Aaron LaGrange and you can find his contact info at