Volunteers from People First are shown with some of the food items available through KNAP Sack’s monthly distribution event at the Putnam County Educational Service Center in Ottawa. KNAP Sack was launched during the 2013-14 school year to provide weekend meals to Putnam County students. It has expanded to serve K-8 students at Ottawa, Glandorf and Sts. Peter and Paul elementary schools, and at Ottawa Head Start. (Photo courtesy of KNAP Sack)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN

LIFE EDITOR

OTTAWA — During the 2018-19 school year, KNAP Sack provided 36,012 weekend meals to students in the Ottawa-Glandorf School District.

That’s a lot of children’s bellies that might have otherwise remained empty over the weekend.

Short for Keeping Nutrition Available Program, KNAP Sack distributed 6,002 food bags to about 200 K-8 students at Ottawa, Glandorf and Sts. Peter and Paul elementary schools, and at Ottawa Head Start during the last school year. Bags are packed through the West Ohio Food Bank in Lima, and each bag contains enough food for two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and two snacks to be eaten over the weekend. Each bag also contains two fruits.

Children depend on these weekend meals, as 52% of the student population at Ottawa Elementary and 7% of students at Glandorf Elementary receive free or reduced breakfast and lunches.

The nonprofit program launched at Ottawa Elementary at the start of the 2013-14 school year thanks to the efforts of two Putnam County couples that previously knew of each other, but had no idea how much they had in common.

Separately, Becky Leader and her husband David, and Jackie and Bob Luttfring, had all been thinking along the same lines. “The four of us had a vision,” Becky says, regarding a weekend meal program for students.

Both couples approached the school at about the same time, and administrators referred them to each other to brainstorm a plan. The Leaders and the Luttfrings approached the West Ohio Food Bank, and KNAP Sack became a reality.

Jackie serves as president, Becky is secretary and treasurer, “and our husbands are just whatever we want them to be,” Becky says. “We call ourselves the Knapsack Squad.”

In its first year, KNAP Sack provided weekend meals once a month, to about 50 kids in grades 1-5 at Ottawa Elementary. Jackie was a cook at the school, and Becky worked in children’s services. Both knew that despite their proud efforts, the need was greater than what was being provided for.

“You feel this tug, this tug at your heartstrings,” Jackie says.

Distribution frequency and scope grew quickly and now, bags are distributed every Friday during the school year. Participation at Ottawa Elementary and Ottawa Head Start is on an opt-out basis, meaning that all children who qualify for free and reduced lunches automatically receive KNAP Sack unless a parent or guardian specifies that they don’t want to participate. Glandorf and Sts. Peter and Paul elementary schools are opt-in.

Bags are packed by volunteers and staff at the West Ohio Food Bank, and a representative from KNAP Sack or a community volunteer picks them up and drives them to Putnam County — the Glandorf Lions Club and the Ottawa-Glandorf High School Key Club regularly provide delivery from Lima. The bags are delivered to students’ homerooms after school on Thursdays and are confidentially distributed by teachers on Fridays.

Even the organizers go to great lengths to keep their identities as the “squad” behind the KNAP Sack program a secret.

“If the kids ask us, we want them to know there’s a lot of people who care about them and work hard for them,” Jackie says. “There’s a whole community that wants to see them fed and taken care of.”

Once, however, when Jackie was still working in the lunchroom, a junior high student happened to be in the school one afternoon when the bags of food arrived. He asked, “Are you the KNAP Sack lady?” She admitted that she was, and the student ran over and gave her a giant hug. “I might not look hungry,” he said, “but a lot of times, that’s the only food in the house.”

Linda Hamilton, CEO of the West Ohio Food Bank, notes surveys indicating that food distributed through KNAP Sack and similar programs regularly feed siblings and entire families — not just the students receiving them.

She says the meals provided through KNAP Sack are intended to be easily prepared by children, such as boxed macaroni and cheese or canned foods. KNAP Sack offerings are a combination of donated foods from the food bank’s retail grocery partners and items provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

KNAP Sack operates on about $1,000 a month, with Hamilton estimating that the food in each bag totals $2.50 to $3.

The program is funded in large part through donations from Putnam County businesses and individuals. A purse bingo event each fall serves as the organization’s signature fundraiser and is planned for Oct. 19 this year.

Funding and community support has swelled so much so that last fall, organizers introduced a monthly food distribution event in the Educational Service Center parking lot across from Ottawa Elementary School.

Again partnering with the West Ohio Food Bank, they made fresh food available by the “truckload” — eight pallets stacked 4 to 5 feet tall. Offerings rotate, but the need is always there: The program served an average 325 people per month, from October to May.

“At Christmas, we had 900 dozen eggs. And we got rid of them all,” Becky says. “It’s gotten to the point where we worry that we won’t be able to get rid of all the food.”

“It’s kind of like, ‘build it, they will come,'” Jackie adds.

This service, too, is made possible through partnerships with local businesses, families, neighbors and student volunteers. Drivers from Ohio Logistics stop by the West Ohio Food Bank while passing through Lima and pick up pallets of food, then store them in the company’s warehouse where volunteers help sort and package the items.

“It really, truly does take a community to put this program out there,” Becky says.

Distribution is open to all Putnam County residents at 200% and below the federal poverty level and is designed to provide two to three weeks worth of food. Check KNAP Sack, Inc. on Facebook for updates on this year’s dates and times.

Anyone wishing to volunteer or donate to KNAP Sack can message through the organization’s Facebook page, email KNAPSackSquad@gmail.com or call Leader at 419-969-0981.

Griteman: 419-427-8477

brennagriteman@thecourier.com

Twitter: @BrennaGriteman

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