Sanders County Backpack Program

The Sanders County Backpack Program was designed to help improve the health & welfare of the county’s children.


Sanders County is 2,790 square miles with about 1/3 of the county being on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The county holds an unemployment rate of 15.2%, which is the 2nd highest in the state of Montana. The six schools within the county range from 58-95% eligible for free and reduced lunch. There are many families that are unable to pay bills or purchase enough food for three meals each day. Unfortunately, this leads to chronically hungry children.

In February 2010 Sanders County Health Department joined the Montana Food Bank Network and the Rural Health Initiative Incubator Program to launch a Backpack Food Program. The objective of the program was to provide weekend meals that children could rely on.

The selection process for the backpack program begins with the teachers. When teachers notice specific signs that indicate chronic hunger in their students, they fill out a referral form that is given to the School Coordinator (the principal) who further observes the child to see if there is consistency with the child’s performance and being chronically hungry. From that determination, the child receives food each weekend through the backpack program. A letter is sent home to the parents explaining the program. Although a few families have declined the meals feeling they can provide enough for their children, everyone who is participating in the program has expressed relief and gratefulness. Many children ask on Monday if they will be getting meals again on Friday.

The Backpack Program is coordinated with six schools in Sanders County and the Montana Food Bank Network out of Missoula. The coordinators keep records of how many children from ages 2-18 receive food each week, while the program coordinator from the county orders the food for the children and organizes the program. Each school receives deliveries every six weeks. Some schools do not have the storage space to keep a six-week supply of food, so the program coordinator helps find places that can be used as a storage area. There also are weekly volunteers that help move the food to the schools.

The cost of last year’s (2011-2012) program was about $34,000. The program is feeding approximately 134 children every weekend from the 1st of September to the 1st of June. Each child receives 1 bag of food for every 2 days at $4.00 per bag. The bags contain 2 each of shelf stable juice, milk, cereal, fruit cups, & protein, such as chili. This food program relies solely on grants, foundations, local businesses, and private donations to stay in operation. The Rural Health Initiative Incubator Mini Grant has been a great supporter of the Sanders County Backpack Program.

To learn more about the Sanders County Backpack Program, please contact:

Beth Rice-Groshong