After more than a year of grappling with uncertainty and insecurity, it can feel hard to find the “bright spots.” But this story from rural South Dakota—about an Indigenous-led collaboration centered on food justice—serves as one. The “Bountiful Backpacks” program started at the St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in 2014, has taken root in other communities as a smart, scalable approach to combating child poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.
Ten years ago, school backpack food programs were gaining popularity. Students would receive backpacks full of ready-made snacks and supplies to supplement what may not be available at home. Unfortunately, the snacks were often highly processed foods and there wasn’t a focus on food and nutrition education. Local leaders, including St. Francis Indian School counselors, our team at the 4-H/South Dakota State University Extension, and educators from SNAP-Ed and EFNEP (initiatives helping to fund our backpack program), were quick to identify these problems. They began engaging the community to create a more tailored approach that would better meet the needs of our kids and families.
- How could the backpack program incorporate fresh, plant-based, and traditional foods?
- Instead of snacks, could they send home ingredients and recipes for a full family meal?
- Did families have the necessary kitchen equipment and utensils to prepare the meals?
- At what age were kids most interested in cooking?
After numerous conversations and community surveys with parents, teachers, local businesses, tribal leaders, and more, the program leaders gleaned key insights to design the “Bountiful Backpacks” program. Their target age group would be 3rd-6th graders; can openers were a basic equipment need; all recipes needed to meet USDA MyPlate nutritional standards; and all ingredients should be available (and affordable!) at the local grocery store. With a plan in place, all they needed was kickstart funding.
The Wellmark Foundation of Blue Cross/Blue Shield was our perfect match. They provided a grant for $150,000 to pilot the program for up to 24 months and they managed to stretch those funds over five years. How? The team ensured that the total cost of ingredients included in each backpack never exceeded $2. This way, families could continue to afford to prepare their favorite meals—from two bean chilis and chicken soups, to sweet potato pancakes (a real hit!), and tuna melts.
It’s important to note the context the team was working in. The St. Francis Indian School was already operating free and reduced-price lunch programs for upwards of 95 percent of its students. The community has experienced generations of deep poverty and it is not uncommon for kids to show up to school hungry. They knew from experience that to effect change, one program wouldn’t be enough—but it was something.
It didn’t take long to see the ripple effects from classroom to home kitchens across the community. Students learned how to cook nutritional recipes in their classrooms on a Friday, and then were equipped with the ingredients and newfound skills to role model to their parents, siblings, and grandparents over the weekend. For many kids, their excitement could not be contained—“What’s the secret ingredient today?” “What new twist are we putting on the recipe?”
Click thumbnails below to view photos from the Bountiful Backpacks classrooms
At its core, Bountiful Backpacks boosted food security by ensuring that kids and families had enough food to eat. But beyond this, it transformed diets by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, provided nutrition and cooking education, and improved not only the health of the students, but their immediate and extended families. And by partnering with community grocery stores, the program also supported the local economy.
It took years and multiple iterations to get the recipes just right, to safely incorporate more perishable items, to ground cultural teaching in the nutrition lessons—and the effects were wide-reaching.
Parents proudly posted photos of their kids preparing the Bountiful Backpack meals on Facebook—noting that their kids were willing to try new foods and enjoyed healthy cooking. Our team even heard from grandmas that their diabetes symptoms had improved as a result of the program.
At some sites, such as the Yankton Sioux Tribe, 79 percent of students in the program reported improvements to their diet quality, with more than one-third explicitly stating that they choose healthier snacks and eat vegetables and fruit more often.
Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman Robert Flying Hawk perfectly describes the hopes we all held for this program when he said, “Unki-ye Wo-i-ha-bde Kin Ogna Oyate Zani Mani Pi Kte”—as translated, “Our vision: Our people will walk with good health.”
“Unki-ye Wo-i-ha-bde Kin Ogna Oyate Zani Mani Pi Kte”—as translated, “Our vision: Our people will walk with good health.”
South Dakota Cooperative Extension’s fresh take with the Bountiful Backpacks program is a unique community-based model that schools, funders, stakeholders, and others can support in the pursuit of health equity and food justice—that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed, and eaten are shared fairly.
Nationally, through its Well Connected Communities initiative, the nation’s Cooperative Extension System continues to support innovations like these—and I still marvel at the fact that the original, modest program we launched eight years ago has reached more than 1,000 families participating in Federally Recognized Tribal Education Programs across the state.
By Karla Trautman, director of Extension at South Dakota State University. Over the course of her 33 year career with Cooperative Extension, Karla has worked at the community- and state-levels in a variety of positions, focusing on the development of youth, families, and communities.
A Multigenerational Approach to Health
In many ways, the Bountiful Backpacks program harkens back to the origins of Cooperative Extension’s 4-H youth development program, where young people learned new skills and then passed them on to their elders. In the late 1800s, land-grant universities were struggling to generate uptake and engagement with new agricultural methods and technologies. However, young people were open to new thinking and when they role modeled new skills to the community, they were more readily accepted and adopted.
About the Cooperative Extension System
Administered by the nation’s land grant universities, including historically Black and Native American tribally controlled colleges and universities, Extension connects university science to community issues in every U.S. state and territory. By linking resources and organizations to address locally identified problems, Extension empowers resilient communities to address pressing problems in rural and urban America.
For more than 100 years, 4‑H has welcomed young people of all beliefs and backgrounds, giving kids a voice to express who they are and how they make their lives and communities better. Through life-changing 4‑H programs, nearly 6 million kids and teens have taken on critical societal issues, such as addressing community health inequities, engaging in civil discourse, and advocating for equity and inclusion for all.