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Parents Warm Up To 'Backpack Program' For Hungry Children

CBS4 News is featuring a special series of reports this holiday season called the 12 Days of Christmas. The following story is written by CBS4's Joel Hillan.

DENVER (CBS4) - Early each Friday morning volunteers from all walks of life gather in an alley behind the Spring Hill Suites on the Auraria Campus. There, a makeshift assembly line fills bags with food to help feed hungry children in Denver Public Schools.

Children like Emmanuel, a third-grader at Columbian Elementary.

"It really helps my family, sometimes we don't go buy food and we can make food," Emmanuel said.

Food For Thought
Bob Bell, right, speaks with volunteers (credit: CBS)

Bob Bell is the co-founder of Food for Thought.

"The stories we heard just drop you to your knees that kids literally (at) the end of Friday were running around to the cafeteria saying, 'Do you got anything left over?'" Bell said.

Four years ago, Bell, a Denver real estate broker, and businessman John Thielen formed Food for Thought -- a nonprofit that serves nearly 2,000 kids each week in six Denver elementary schools.

"Ninety percent of our students are all on free or reduced lunch," explained Columbian Elementary teacher Tracy Towle. "So when they didn't have school they weren't getting two meals a day -- some were, but a lot weren't, so for those students and families it's been a huge boost."

So-called backpack programs like these are not new to Denver, but this is the first program where you have to opt out instead of opting in.

"Food for Thought takes care of every kid in every school we serve, so if there are 450 kids in a school, then 450 kids get a bag," said Bell.

"The parents have just embraced it," Towle goes on to explain. "In the beginning I will say it was a little tough. Some parents were really kind of leery to be given food, to be given that handout, and now they understand that every family gets it and certain families are not singled out."

Working as a food pantry through Food Bank of the Rockies, Food for Thought spends about $5,000 each week. Bell was quick to point out that they have no salaried employees and everything needed to support the effort is donated. He says that means 100 percent of money raised goes directly to purchasing food.

Bob Bell
CBS4's Joel Hillan interviews Bob Bell (credit: CBS)

"My partner, John Thielen, loans us his staff, which is made up of a lot of moms and they purchase the food. They go online and they treat it like it is what Mom buys at the store."

Inside the bags there's everything from fruits and vegetables to candy.

Abigail, a fifth-grader at Columbian Elementary, loves the program -- and Bell.

"I really like Fridays because Bobby, he's our friend and we like it when he brings stuff and sometimes we go and help and it really helps us because on Saturdays and Sundays we don't really have that much food. The food we really like the noodle soup," Abigail said.

And it's not just the kids who have grown to love Bell and Thielen. The staff at Columbian knows them as well, calling the two an integral part of the community.

"Although we're really proud of the 1,500 to 2,000 kids we serve," Bell says, "There are 30,000 kids in that same demographic, so it doesn't let you sleep well at night thinking, 'Yeah, you're really doing good, but you have a long way to go.'"

Food For Thought
(credit: CBS)

When I asked Emmanuel what difference the program made in his life, he said, "That we're not hungry anymore … (pause) … not starving for days."

Joel Hillan is CBS4's Traffic Specialist and is featured on the CBS4 Morning News. Follow Joel on Twitter @joelhillan.

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