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Syracuse City Schools Provide Hungry Students with 'Blessings in a Backpack'

Scott Willis/WAER News

More than 900 Syracuse City school children will be going home with a backpack full of food every weekend thanks to a program that aims to fill gaps in hunger for under resourced families.  It’s called “Blessings in a Backpack,” which has grown this year to include five schools. 

Superintendent Jaime Alicea knows that many children just aren’t getting fed at home.

“In the Syracuse city school district, we provide breakfast to 11,000 kids every day, lunches to 15,000 kids every day, and on weekends thanks to the collaboration that we have with community agencies and with the Blessing,” Alicea said.

Program Coordinator with Blessings in a Backpack says the bags will contain six healthy items: two breakfast, two entrees, and two snacks.  School District Chief Nutritionist Rachel Murphy says 1/3 of food needs are not met for city school students, especially on the weekends where students can go up to 72 hours without proper nourishment.  

Credit Scott Willis/WAER News
Each 'Blessing in a Backpack' will consist of six healthy items for the students, representing a variety of food groups.

“We have social workers who already know who the parents are, they already know the family dynamic,” Murphy said. “What they do is they basically identify families who don’t have other resources in place, can’t get other resources in place. Or, maybe the children are transient. They don’t have a family network, they might be in foster care. We know that the children we are working with it’s very individualized.”

Murphy says parents or guardians have to complete a survey and sign off on the program.  She says the program has been almost too well-received by the students.

Credit Scott Willis/WAER News
Superintendent Jamie Alicea is proud of the aid his district is giving to its under resourced students.

“We have kids who are supposed to be discreet. They’re supposed to keep it quiet but they’re not. ‘Where’s my bag? I want a bag. They got a bag.’” Murphy said. “We know that the kids enjoy it, we know they like it because we’re hearing from them. We even have them, when they’re getting on the bus to go home, ready to dive in there and go through their stuff and check out what’s on the menu for the weekend.”

High demand means the schools have been using a rotation system where one classroom gets the bag for the week. However, teachers tell Murphy that some children have become so dependent on the program that they go home crying when they don’t get a bag.  Blessings in a backpack is holding a collection drive September 29th at the Walmart, Route 31 in Liverpool.  For more information, click here.

Here's a list of foods needed for the Fill-a-Bus collection:

  • Ready-to-serve soups with easy open lids, i.e. chicken noodle, vegetable beef
  • Macaroni and cheese microwavable cups - any brand
  • Chef Boyardee, all varieties
  • Fruit and grain breakfast bars.  NO NUTS
  • 100% juice boxes or pouches
  • Applesauce cups, any brand
  • Fruit cups, any variety or brand

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at