Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Back to School Shopping - Putting Last Year's Backpacks to Good Use

The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project has an interesting idea as your family launches into back-to-school shopping this month and next.

They are collecting gently used backpacks, both for children and adults, which will be distributed to food pantries so families can more easily carry their groceries home. These along with the tote bags also distributed also provide the family with reusable bags for other purposes (including school if that's appropriate).

The project collaborates with a dozen local organizations including Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, East End Food Co-Op, Construction Junction and more to collect excess new and gently used tote bags for redistribution to the region's food pantries. The project has nearly a dozen permanent drop-off spots and partners with varius groups and companies to organize tote bag drives.

So why kids' backpacks?

I remember being a child and walking with my mum to the grocery store to pick up items. She didn't drive, so we walked. My Dad drove us for the big shopping on payday, but he worked. A lot. So it was often my young brother and I helping for those "in-between" trips.

We hated it. The walk was about a mile each way. My mother kept a brisk pace, a tight list and was typically not given to buying us a treat (this was the 70s and 80s and we were a steelworking family on a budget). And we had to carry stuff. This was in the era of paper bags so you couldn't drape it from your wrist. It was a bag in each arm and keep up the pace. The worst was our ongoing battle over who had to carry the gallon jug of 2% milk. It was cold, uncomfortable and usually wet from condensation. Ugggg.

Equally ugggg would have been letting my Mum carry everything herself. Not that she gave us that option, but still I knew it wasn't fun for her to do this. Now I do want to mention that my parents did utilize food pantries when my Dad was laid off. But they never took us. I am sure it was a matter of pride.

Then there was the unload from the "big" grocery shopping trips on payday. Usually, we had to go along to help (again, ugggg). But we definitely needed to be front and center to unload and put away 18 thousand bags of groceries (at least it seemed that way). I would have gladly abdicated that job, but my Mum's theory was that if wanted to eat, we had to participate.

No one used reusable bags in those days. At least, not in the Mon Valley.

I digress to my lifelong aversion to the gallon jug of 2% milk to put our next request into context ...

You can see where an adult sized backpack can help an adult sized family member transport grocery items very efficiently. We want to have bags on hand to help the kid sized family members be able to help should that be necessary/desired.

And, frankly, it is a very practical use for the leftover bags. I don't like the idea of anyone, much less a child, having to struggle with a thin plastic bag filled with whatever item they are responsible to transport.

Make it more impactful for your kids. Explain the reason you are donating the bags and offer them a chance to donate grocery items that might fit into the backpack. For example, if a PTA filled bags with 18 ounce jars of peanut butter, canned fruit and any type of juice ... perfect! You can take your children along to the drop-off spot to contribute the items directly. Or we can work with you to set up an informal drive and make arrangements for the kids to see the Food Bank if you prefer.

We anticipate collecting our 1500th reusable bag by Saturday. That translates into 750 households served, 4500 disposable bags kept out of use and an unknown amount of pantry money freed up to spend on food instead of bags.

You can help us push onward. For more information about the project, including a complete list of drop-off spots please visit


  1. As someone who doesn't own a car, I can say that I have 1st hand experience on how this impacts a shopping trip. I can only imagine how much harder it would be if you were buying groceries for an entire family. For that reason, I think this is a wonderful initiative. I hope the project receives a lot of support from the community!

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