Big Blue Backpacks

Millikin organization kicks off year six of addressing food insecurity in local community.

Millikin organization announces expansion, will serve 160 students with meals

Big Blue Backpacks, a Millikin University-based organization seeking to address food insecurity in the Decatur, Ill., community and the lives of children and families, will begin its sixth year providing nourishment to students in need at Dennis Lab School.

This year, Big Blue Backpacks will expand its efforts and provide 80 students at American Dreamer STEM Academy in Decatur with food each weekend during the academic year.

Big Blue Backpacks

Millikin Student Katie Gessford

"This expansion to include the American Dreamer STEM Academy has been in the planning stages this past year and we are so pleased that we are able to help twice as many students now in the school district," said Mary Garrison, professor of social work at Millikin University and Big Blue Backpacks team advisor.

In 2020, Big Blue Backpacks expanded to provide a weekly food supply for the "Little Food Pantry" that sits outside the Dennis Lab School Kaleidoscope campus throughout the academic year and summer. "This effort has been extremely successful, and we will continue to supply food items to the 'Little Food Pantry,' along with our regular food, to both Dennis Lab School campuses and now the American Dreamer STEM Academy," Garrison said.

Big Blue Backpacks

Mary Garrison, professor of social work and Big Blue Backpacks team advisor

With the support of private donors in the community as well as local agencies, Big Blue Backpacks provides food for students in need. The organization purchases food items and packs them into food bags for over-the-weekend nourishment. This year, Big Blue Backpacks will serve 160 students with these meals. Big Blue Backpacks provides breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks to children in an effort to ease hunger and related academic deficits. 

"Our community impact is great as students benefit from nutrition that will enhance their academic skills for school success," Garrison noted.

Big Blue Backpacks started providing bags of food for students in need in Sept. 2016. Since then, Big Blue Backpacks has continued to raise funding through generous private donations, community agency donations and fundraisers as well as the support of the WSOY Food Drive. All money raised goes directly to the food that the students receive without any overhead expenses. 

Big Blue Backpacks

Dennis Lab School Principal Dan Lynch

Each bag that Big Blue Backpacks provides contains 10 food items for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. Examples of common items found in the bags include granola bars, oatmeal, breakfast bars, noodles, soups, canned vegetables, pasta, tuna, macaroni, gummy bears, fruit snacks, pudding cups and fruit cups.

"When this idea was born seven years ago and the first team took a year to create an effective process, I knew it would be successful. Each leadership team since the first has worked tirelessly to continue this program and ensure its sustainability. I am honored to work with such amazing students as their advisor," Garrison said. "Today is our kickoff for this academic year and we look forward to another successful year."

Big Blue Backpacks

Big Blue Backpacks community partners include the Good Samaritan Inn, Decatur Public Schools Foundation and Aldi.

Millikin students involved with the organization this year include Katie Gessford, a senior human services major from Decatur; Hope Roderick, a senior early childhood developmental therapy major from Glen Carbon, Ill.; Sean Irons, a senior human services major from Decatur and Harrison Atkins, a senior human services major from Chicago.

Big Blue Backpacks

Families enrolled in Big Blue Backpacks do not pay anything; the program is free to those receiving the food. This means that fundraising by the leadership team is ongoing to ensure the continued success of the program. It only costs $80 per student an academic year to provide them with the resources that they need in order to have the chance to succeed. Any financial donation is helpful and Big Blue Backpacks is currently offering sponsorship tiers for donors to choose from:

  • School Desk ($80): Sponsors one (1) student for an academic school year
  • Lunch Table ($800): Sponsors 10 students for an academic school year
  • Classroom ($2,000): Sponsors 25 students for an academic school year
  • School Bus ($4,000): Sponsors 50 students for an academic school year

Anyone wishing to donate any amount can make a check out to Big Blue Backpacks and send it to Professor Mary Garrison, Millikin University, 1184 W. Main Street, Decatur, IL 62522

For more information about Big Blue Backpacks, visit the Big Blue Backpacks Facebook page, call 217.424.5074 or e-mail