Two first-graders wrestling over a backpack might not be a surprise, but the reason why was obvious for Rachel Hansen, a parent volunteer at Madison School.
One boy knew the other's backpack held snacks, and he was hungry because there wasn't anything at home to eat that morning.
"My wife broke down, left school, went and got the kid some food and anonymously put it in his backpack so he would have food," said Jim Hansen, a Madison School parent and a Quincy attorney.
Turns out the boy's not an isolated case.
In the 2010-11 school year, Hansen said, 1,281 Quincy Public School students in kindergarten through third grade were eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Outside school, many of those students go hungry.
"The facts are kids that are better-fed do better in school," Hansen said. "Their attention span is better. They're not tired and worried about how to eat."
Wanting to help, but unsure how, the Hansens soon found a way.
Reading a magazine on a work-related flight introduced Jim Hansen to Blessings in a Backpack, a Louisville, Ky.-based program that sends backpacks filled with food home on weekends with elementary and junior high students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. The couple spent a year laying the groundwork to bring the program to Madison School. They raised $12,000 in private donations to fund the program; met with the manager of the Quincy Walmart, which supplies the food and delivers it to the school; worked with school officials; and spread the word about another way to help those in need.
The program launched the first Friday after Labor Day 2010. This year's program will kick off Friday, Aug. 26, or Friday, Sept. 2, at the latest, and the Hansens hope to expand the program this year to a second elementary school.
Madison Principal Kelle Bunch said the program meets a basic need in her building.
"People think you probably don't have hungry kids at Madison or struggling academically or with social/emotional needs," Bunch said. "Yes, we do, and some schools have a bigger population. People are struggling right now in the tough economic times. When kids are hungry, they don't care how fabulous the curriculum is, how dynamic the teachers are. They're hungry."
About 100 backpacks went home every Friday last school year with students whose families opted to participate in the program. Families sent back the backpacks on Monday, then they were filled again with nonperishable foods such as granola bars or heat-and-eat dishes that kids can prepare themselves.
It's just the basics to "get kids by over the weekend," said Jean Kinder, the school district's director of food services and coordinator of the backpack menus. "We tried to get the best nutritional value for our dollar. Not everything's perfect, but there's something there for kids to eat."
Once the program starts this year, Madison classes will take turns working with adult volunteers to pack and deliver the backpacks. The process takes just 10 minutes but provides a valuable learning tool in leadership, teamwork and problem-solving.
"It's important for our students to understand there are people in the community that have needs," Bunch said. "We're trying to teach kids something about community service. This is a great way to do it."
Pep talks remind students that if they see someone carrying one of the backpacks, they shouldn't ask about it but instead know they had a hand in helping.
"Kids think it's cool. They keep saying, ‘I hope I get one,' " Bunch said. "I'm so impressed with our children being leaders, good citizens. They handled it in such a wonderful way."
So did the community in helping to fund the program.
"It's just been well-received," Hansen said. "It doesn't cost the district anything. The other thing helping in selling the program is ... if somebody says they want to give $1,000 for the program, $1,000 goes to feeding kids. It is a true dollar-for-dollar charity.
"People do all sorts of wonderful charitable stuff, mission work, feeding starving people in Africa. But you don't have to look past the streets here in Quincy to find a need for that kind of stuff."