12/05/2013 21:42 EST | Updated 02/04/2014 05:59 EST

Blessings in a Backpack keeps Vancouver kids fed

An innovative approach to keeping children fed and alert in the classroom is taking root in B.C., thanks to the efforts of one Vancouver woman.

The Blessings in a Backpack program — founded in the U.S. in 2004 by philanthropist Stan Curtis — was brought to B.C. in January 2011 by Susan Fox and her husband Nathan. 

Now Susan spends each Friday night in the basement of Florence Nightingale Elementary in East Vancouver, filling backpacks with food for children in need.

“We decided we would personally sponsor two schools, 50 kids, and it ended up being 52 that we started with and we committed to for five years," says Fox.

Since then, the program has grown to 225 children in six schools across Vancouver.

The goal of Blessings in a Backpack is to make sure youngsters don't go hungry on weekends, building on the success of breakfast and hot lunch programs that keep kids fed during the school week.

Kids take home a backpack filled with food every Friday and return the backpack empty on Monday, ready to start their week.

Blessings in a Backpack receives food at cost from a local grocer, allowing program operators to feed a single child on weekends throughout the school year for only $100.

According to supporters, the benefits and impact of the program are immediate — attendance and productivity rise, students report greater attentiveness and improved energy and teachers see improvements in study habits and demeanour.

Buying weekend meals pays dividends

Educators say that when children don’t eat on weekends, Monday mornings can be a real challenge.

"They have a very limited attention span,” says Hope Sterling, principal at Florence Nightingale.

“They just have trouble sitting in their seat and, of course, if you can't sit in your seat and attend, the learning process is going to be very hampered."

Kira Tosefsky, 14, one of many donors behind the local program, was able to get donations from family and friends as part of her bat mitzvah.

"I was able to raise enough to add 24 kids to the program for three years,” said Tosefsky.

For Fox, the current program is just the beginning. She ultimately wants to partner with more grocers to feed more students.

“I've only scratched the surface. And then, after I do Vancouver, hopefully I'll move onto Richmond and Burnaby. I don't want any kids going home hungry on the weekend.”

The CBC will be hosting its annual open house and Food Bank drive on December 6, from 5:30 a.m. PT - 7:30 p.m. PT.