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Billings' 'Silent Soldiers' fighting student hunger in area schools

Posted at 10:20 AM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 12:20:09-05

Youth hunger is an issue the Billings community and all of Montana face every day. Good programs like Backpack Meals and Teen Pantry help fill some of the need, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added a twist to this already difficult situation.

Beartooth Elementary School Principal Travis Niemeyer of Billings takes on teachers, kids, classes and now Covid-19 every day.

Those challenges, he can handle. It’s a silent issue that tears at his heart.

“I can tell you stories that kids that go home and they don't have food. It's not in the cupboards. It’s not in the house. Parents are bringing it home on a daily basis if they can afford it,” said Niemeyer.

The BackPack Meals Program fills student packs with enough food for elementary kids to keep fed through the weekends and over holidays. And when the pandemic struck program coordinator Ginny Mermel said there was a fourfold increase in demand, “we went from about 300 a week to 1,200 every weekend.”

The BackPack Meals program is 100% donor-supported and assists more than 5,000 students. It is volunteer-driven with support from teachers, principals, and school counselors to identify and quickly help students in need. More than 98% of donor dollars go directly to purchasing food.

The Teen Pantry Program, which focuses on teens in middle and high school, also took a big hit.

“We emptied everything in the middle school in high school pantries, just to feed people,” said Mermel.

The Teen Pantries are open in Billings middle and high schools, including the Career Center. They provide easy access to nutritious grab-and-go and easy to prepare food for students in need. Counselors, teachers, principals, and school secretaries who notice a student is struggling can direct students in a private manner.

The pandemic has placed an even greater need on the Teen Pantry Program when parents and teens were laid off.

“If you come from a low-income family, you often help out, whether it's, you've got a part-time job and you're paying for some of your own expenses you're literally helping contribute to the family's welfare as well,” she said.

Mermel says children of all ages need the right nutrition so they can grow and learn.

“Here in the US, there's a lot of kids, we don't realize they're hungry but are and it can permanently affect their emotional, physical, and intellectual well-being and development. And when you think about permanently, that’s a pretty huge effect to say the least,” she said.

Niemeyer says what goes into the backpacks seems like so little, but it’s so much to those kids.

“It provides, not just the nutrients and things that they need to be ready for school, but I see it in a lot of kids, it provides them with some hope,” he said.

And that is why Niemeyer and his team of teachers, counselors and other staff have stepped up to be “Silent Soldiers.” The pandemic has placed an extra responsibility on educators. The programs are run by volunteers, and Covid-19 restrictions have pushed volunteers out of schools and pulled in more teachers, principals, and staff.

Actions truly appreciated by Mermel and others who rely on the programs.

“Our school district, and our school food service, it's just, it's unbelievable what goes on behind the scenes to make sure that students have the tools they need to learn,” she said.

Niemeyer said he doesn’t want to say the kids need it. They deserve it, he said.

“Our kids deserve that hope, and that ability to look forward to the weekend instead of dreading the weekend and what it's going to bring for them. as far as what’s in the house.”

So as Niemeyer and his team deal with the day-in and day-out of kids, classes, and Covid-19. We also know these silent soldiers are taking extra steps to make sure our kids don’t go hungry.

You can help.

Friday, Feb. 5 is 406 Jersey BackPack Day 2021. You can sport your favorite team jersey or sweatshirt at work, school, or home, while raising money to help fight student hunger.

The Education Foundation of Billings helps support the BackPack Meals and the Teen Pantry Program across Billings School District 2. In past years, support from students, educators, and the community has raised thousands of critical dollars that go directly to fill immediate needs.

To take part in 406 BackPack Jersey Day 2021 go to https://givebutter.com/406JerseyDay.

To learn more, go to Billings Public Schools BackPack Meals Program on Facebook.