WeekEnd Backpack Program Helps Youth Tackle Hunger

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By Amy Schwabenlender

Soup, oatmeal, tuna and more: With each item of food that more than 70 volunteers pack into 1,300 Weekend Hunger Backpack bags prepared once a month on Saturday mornings, Valley of the Sun United Way takes steps closer to its goal of ending hunger in Maricopa County.

Cindy Stifanos is among the assembly line of good will that meets monthly, on a mission to teach her four youngest children a lesson about paying it forward, as part of United Way’s WeekEnd Hunger Backpack program. 

The story of Stifanos’ kids is far too common, but highlights the reason why we are asking community members to join and show their commitment to End Hunger by taking a simple pledge online at Taking the Pledge to End Hunger, is a simple but impactful way to play a role in ending hunger in our Valley – it does not involve a donation of money, but is simply an effort to demonstrate community support for our goal to end hunger, learn more and be a voice for this issue. As a bonus, the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation will donate $1 for each pledge of support, up to $100,000.

Three of Stifanos’ youngest children are adopted and know all too well what it was like to try to keep up their studies while their stomachs grumbled. It’s not easy, being unsure of when you will eat next, or to have to decide whether you should eat the meal in front of you or try to set some aside for later, they explained – this is why they wanted to help other kids.

“This could happen to anyone,” Stifanos said. “There are so many children that go without, when they don’t have to – anything my family can do to help, we will. When kids are hungry, they can’t focus on anything else.”

United Way’s WeekEnd Hunger Backpack program is   helping local school children get through weekends by providing students who qualify with easy to prepare meals and ensuring they arrive at school Monday ready to learn – rather than hungry.

A recent review of USDA data revealed a startling statistic – 82,000 households in Maricopa County face chronic hunger.  We and our partners know that we can’t sit by and allow that kind of hunger in our community to continue to pervade our educational system and impact our most vulnerable populations. 

Our goal and our promise is to eliminate one third of chronic hunger in Maricopa County by 2016. That’s 27,000 fewer households not knowing where their next meal is coming from – children, seniors, pregnant mothers and hard-working single parents. We know we can do it – especially with the support demonstrated by our Pledge to End Hunger.  

Central High School teacher Tammy Nagel has seen the damage hunger can have on education.

“As a teacher 22 years, I have never seen so much hunger among students,” she said. “If you are hungry, you can’t work or learn.”

Sign up to volunteer or to take the pledge and tell a friend. Anyone can Be the One to Unite to End Hunger – visit

Amy Schwabenlender is vice president of community impact for Valley of the Sun United Way.

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