At the October 8 meeting of the Stevensville School Board, the Bitterroot Star presented a check for $4000 to the school’s Backpack Program. The money represented part of the proceeds from Stevensville Western Heritage Days which took place in June, and will be used for food to fill backpacks for hungry kids to take home from school to help get through the weekend. Another $15oo was earmarked for Lone Rock School’s Backpack Program.
According to the National Council on Feeding America, 5,130 people in Ravalli County are experiencing food insecurity. One in six children in Montana struggles with hunger. Food insecurity and health are intricately linked. People living in food insecure homes experience challenges in accessing nutritious foods and face barriers to consistently adopting healthy eating patterns. A poor quality diet that lacks nutritious food has detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health. Poor nutrition can increase the risk of developing health problems, including diabetes and hypertension. (To access more resources on the intersection of food insecurity and health, visit HungerandHealth.org)
Stevensville Primary School has been a member of the Bitterroot BackPack Program since 2015, which is an official program of the National Council on Feeding America. The program discreetly distributes backpacks of nutritious, easy-to-prepare food to take home on the weekends for chronically hungry students in the Bitterroot Valley. The goal of this program is to meet the needs of chronically hungry students and provide more food security so they can concentrate and perform the complex tasks required in school. Food security allows students to engage fully in their learning environments and greatly increases their likelihood for academic, behavioral, and future success.
“In the short time this program has been running, Stevensville has provided incredible support for our students from community members, organizations, and local businesses who donate time, money, and supplement our backpack bags with fresh fruit and vegetables,” said elementary counselor Lee Starck, who handles the program at Stevensville School. “It is imperative that as we continue to grow this program (we have expanded into our Middle and High Schools), we keep an eye toward sustainability and continuing this important program. Your continued advocacy efforts and financial support are the most crucial steps in this process.”
The Bitterroot Star started Western Days in 1988, according to co-publisher Victoria Howell. It was basically a giant flea market but even back then, its primary purpose was to bring people into Stevensville’s historic downtown where they would spend money in the shops and restaurants.
Sponsorship of the event was handed over to the Stevensville Business Association, and finally the Stevensville Main Street Association, where it continued to grow and become more successful and more profitable. Over the years, the event was expanded with additional family-friendly heritage activities, a street dance, a brewfest as well as the signature chuckwagon cook-off, bringing in thousands of people from the Bitterroot and Missoula.
This year the Main Street Association decided it would no longer be the sponsoring organization of Western Heritage Days. But after it was cancelled, things came full circle, and the Bitterroot Star took up the reins once again with the decision to sponsor the 31st annual event. Bob Cumming, a former president of the Main Street Association, agreed to chair this year’s event and he put together a committee of dedicated community volunteers.
Every year at the event’s Chuckwagon Cook-off, money is raised for the Ned Larson Memorial Scholarship which was started by Ned’s wife Terri in memory of her husband who was the inspiration behind the popular Chuckwagon Cook-off. This year Stevensville High School graduate Mikayla Newman was the recipient of the $1000 scholarship to the college of her choice.
In addition to the dedicated committee members, the tremendous financial support from local businesses was also a factor in the success of this year’s event. The committee decided to donate the profits to a worthy cause in Stevensville and after some research, chose the Kids Backpack Food Programs at Stevensville and Lone Rock, after learning that many children who would otherwise go hungry over the weekend receive backpacks full of food on Fridays to take home.
In the week leading up to Western Heritage Days, the Bitterroot Star added a food drive at local businesses and brought in over 230 pounds of food which was dropped off at the school. Along with the food, a total of $5500 was donated to the local Backpack Programs. Stevensville School’s Backpack Program received $4000 and Lone Rock School’s Backpack Program received $1500.
The committee worked closely with Lee Starck, Stevi elementary school counselor, and Mary Hayes with the Three Mile Community Center which handles the Lone Rock program. The Stevensville program serves 35-40 students every week and the Lone Rock program is serving more than 40 students each week.
Typical backpack contents include:
• Two servings of cereal
• Two servings of fruit, typically a fruit cup or apple sauce
• Two servings of juice
• Two servings of lunch/dinner, typically canned ravioli, chili, lasagna, spaghetti, etc.
• One cereal bar and one serving of condensed milk
According to Starck, when students are asked how they feel receiving their backpack bags for the weekend, students most often simply smile! They share they feel happy, less worried, excited about trying something new, and/or are looking forward to being able to cook with their families.
“The Bitterroot Backpack Program at Stevensville helps provide additional food security for many of our students and families over the weekend,” said Starck. “Funding and sustaining this crucial program helps take one less worry off of our students’ minds.
“Grants, fundraising, and generous donations from our community such as what the Bitterroot Star and Stevensville community did over Western Heritage Days have a tremendous impact on the sustainability of this program. Thank you so much!”
“We’re pleased that we could do something meaningful for our community,” said Victoria Howell, who co-publishes the Star with her husband Michael. “It was fun, too!”