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VALPARAISO — One in six children in Indiana struggle with hunger, but GracePoint Church and the Valparaiso Community Schools are working together to make sure that doesn't happen in their area.

GoodStock, a free concert for the public, gathered over 2,500 people at Central Park Plaza last year. This year's event, held June 21 at the plaza, featured music, food vendors and giveaways for children alongside the main attraction of food donations. All donations and proceeds raised from GoodStock go toward the food program in the Valparaiso school system.

GracePoint's annual benefit has assisted Valparaiso schools to implement the program called Backpacks and Snacks into their system. The food is distributed to students in the program on the last school day of the week and covers the individual student's snacks and meals for the weekend or school break.

"We just feel like its our duty as a church to give back to the community," said Jill Ramian, GoodStock event coordinator. "We strongly believe that children are our future so we need to be taking care of them."

The backpack program started in Valparaiso Community Schools four years ago through the efforts of the school system's social workers. In the beginning, only two elementary schools were involved, but the program has since grown. Last year was the first for all of Valparaiso's schools, from elementary to high school, to participate in the program.

Each school in the system has social workers who work with the students. Valparaiso High School social worker Natalie Miller said the program keeps going to address the need they see in the schools.

"We do rely on GracePoint a lot for the beginning of our school year," Miller said. "The GoodStock event that they put on basically supplies the students we're feeding for the semester with food and monetary donation. It's a very big help."

Over 200 students each receive a bag full of food for the weekend and holiday breaks, Ramian said. It costs about $200 to feed one child in the program during the school year.

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Miller said the schools also supply children younger than school age in the homes as well. For example, if there is a 1-year-old in the home, they will send extra food home for that child. The bags contain two breakfasts, two snacks and two dinners per child in the household for the weekend. Miller said families who want to get involved in the program simply have to contact their school's social worker.

When the program has run low during the school year, other local businesses have stepped up to fill the need. Hilltop Neighborhood House reached out the community on the school's behalf during the past school year, and Miller said Valparaiso's response was "awesome" and they received a "ton of food." Dentist Michael Uzelac donated 500 cinch-sack bags for the schools to use.

In the Valparaiso school system, more than 1,700 students receive subsidized lunches. Around 21.5 million children nationwide participate in the National School Lunch Program during the school week. Miller said the backpack program covers the "gray area" — students whose families don't qualify for subsidies but still need them and families with hardships during the school year who just need extra help.

"This program really hits a lot of those people ... it's kind of one of those little boosters to just relieve some of the weekend for the kids, for the families," Miller said. "We noticed a need for those individuals ... just because you don't qualify for (subsidized lunches), doesn't mean you don't have hardship."

Ramian said the list of food items people can donate is posted around Valparaiso and also can be found on their website. Items such as granola bars, sandwich crackers, peanut butter and fruit cups are items easily accessible to children of all ages and something they can be independent in getting for themselves. Monetary donations also are welcomed.

"You never want to see a child, especially in your own neighborhood, go hungry," Ramian said.

The Summer Food Service Program at Valparaiso Community Schools started June 10 and continues until July 26. During its first week, almost 3,000 free meals were served. The program is open to all children, 18 and under.

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Porter County General Assignment Reporter

Emily covers Porter County news and features for The Times. A transplant from NW Ohio to NWI, Emily loves talking to people and hearing their stories. She graduated from the University of Toledo in 2018 and believes all dogs are good dogs.