Woodhouse Auto Family provides 33,200 pounds of food to hungry schoolchildren every week through its annual BackPack Challenge. Now in its 11th year, company leaders say they’re astonished by the program’s impact – and by the magnitude of food insecurity across Nebraska and western Iowa.

“These kids are at the mercy of influences and situations that are not their own,” says Woodhouse owner Jason Pittack. “If you’re going to support something, how can you not support children?”

The BackPack Challenge through the Food Bank for the Heartland and Food Bank of Siouxland supplies more than 8,300 backpacks of food to students every Friday during the school year, says Brian Barks, president and CEO of the Food Bank for the Heartland.

Each backpack, which costs about $4 to fill, contains two breakfast meals, two entrees, shelf-stable milk, one juice box and a snack item.

“A lot of these kids are home alone, so they need an easy source of food that is ready to eat,” Barks says. “Every backpack makes it easy for children to have access to quality, healthy food all weekend.”

Teachers at participating schools say the program helps ensure students’ basic needs are met, so they can come to school more ready to learn.

The Food Bank estimates 1 in 6 children in the 93 counties it serves are food insecure. The term is used by the USDA to describe someone who lacks consistent access to food to maintain a healthy, active life.

When the Food Bank launched the BackPack Challenge in 2006, about 300 students in three schools were being served. Since then, more than $7.6 million has been raised — about $1 million last year alone — for about 8,300 children in 250 schools.

Schools are chosen based on food insecurity estimates.

Contributons come from Woodhouse employees along with members of the community through company fundraising efforts.

“To say that Woodhouse has been a game-changer is an understatement,” Barks says. “The program as grown substantially” since the auto family signed on in 2008 as a way to give back to communities where they work and live. Woodhouse has locations in Omaha, Bellevue, Blair, Plattsmouth and Missouri Valley.

“Our blanket reaches a long way,” Pittack says. “Even though we have a large portion of our business in Omaha, we touch many small communities in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. This program has been a natural fit from day one as it impacts kids in every city we represent and beyond.”

Pittack says the BackPack Challenge is part of the Woodhouse culture.

“Our employees have made it their own. It’s important to every one of us and woven into our identity. It has become the fabric of who we are,” he says.

Woodhouse partners also donate, according to Pittack.

The Food Bank provided the equivalent of nearly 23 million meals in fiscal year 2019 through Kids Cafe, BackPack, Mobile Pantry, Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as through network partner pantries, emergency shelters and other organizations.

In fiscal year 2019, the Food Bank received 8.7 million pounds of food from corporate donors, 5.2 million pounds from organizations, 4.9 million pounds from the USDA and 243,000 pounds from food drives.

The best way to support the Food Bank — and its mission to close the meal gap in a sustainable fashion by 2025 — is through a financial donation, Barks says.

The Food Bank buys in bulk and can provide three meals for every $1 donated, he says.

To donate through Woodhouse Gives, visit woodhouse.com/foodbank.

A Dierks Bentley concert presented by Woodhouse on Feb. 29 at CHI Health Center Omaha is another way to support the BackPack Challenge, Pittack says. Visit woodhouse.com/concert; donation levels for tickets range from $40 to $225.

“The concert has been another tool in driving donations, and a fun way to give back to those donating to the program,” Pittack says.

To volunteer for the Food Bank, visit foodbankheartland.org. For more information or to sponsor a backpack, visit woodhouse.com/foodbank.

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