Blessings in a Dance Marathon: Northwestern Students Raise Money for Food Insecurity

blessings in a backpack
Participants of Blessings in a Backpack receive six items in their weekend bags, each of which includes two entrees, two breakfast dishes, and two snacks.

By Anna Boisseau

Northwestern University’s Dance Marathon traditionally raises money for a health-related charity, but this year it went down a slightly different path. On March 4th-6th, students will dance for 30 hours straight to support nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack’s fight against food insecurity.

“It felt like it was time for a change,” said Arielle Miller, one of the co-executives of Dance Marathon (NUDM). After surveying what the students wanted, Miller said the executive board wanted to select an organization dedicated to an issue of inequality.

Blessings in a Backpack, which was People’s Magazine’s charity of the year in 2012, is the parent organization for the 943 sites in the United States that distribute weekend food to children in need. A teacher in Louisville founded the nonprofit in 2005 when she noticed how many children in her classrooms were going home hungry over the weekend.

According to Feeding America, 19 percent of American households with children were food insecure in 2014. The same organization found that in Illinois, 661,950 children, or more than one in five, were unsure of where or when they will receive their next meal.

“We found that the cause was not only compelling, but sadly relatable,” Miller said. She added that even if they have not personally struggled with food insecurity, students understood what it is to be hungry.

Northwestern Dance Marathon Gala
The staff of Blessings in a Backpack attend a gala for Northwestern Dance Marathon. (Courtesy of Northwestern Dance Marathon)

“When we as executive co-chairs go through the process, we don’t want to choose something that just executive board thinks is cool, but that something that a lot of people are going to be excited about and relate to,” said Kevin Harris, the other co-chair of NUDM.

NUDM also chose Blessings in a Backpack out of a pool of applicants because they had a well-developed plan on how to use the money. According to Assistant Director of Development Shannon Fitzgerald, seven percent of the money raised will go to volunteer services, with the remaining amount split between support for existing sites and creation of new locations. Currently, Blessings in a Backpack provides about 20 percent of the funding at their program’s sites, with the rest being fundraised by each individual location.

Students involved in the Dance Marathon raise $400 in order to participate, with fundraising events throughout the year to help them accomplish this goal. However, Kevin said something unique about this year is that non-dancers can still be involved through outreach events, like packaging food for local children to take home over the weekend.

Last year, NUDM raised over $1 million for the Starlight Children’s Foundation. The money is going towards the creation of 10 special playrooms in Midwestern hospitals. Two will open up the same weekend as the dance marathon. Arielle said NUDM hopes to raise a similar amount this year for Blessings in a Backpack. Though she estimates they are only about a quarter of the way to this goal presently, much of the money is traditionally raised the weekend of the marathon.

Fitzgerald said Blessings in a Backpack has already reaped some benefits from its association with NUDM. “We have had influx of visits to website and social media, and thousands of views per video when that didn’t used to be the case,” she said.

She added that a third of Blessings in a Backpack’s current locations were founded when the organization came to national attention after being named People’s Magazine’s charity of the year.

“We’re hoping dance marathon will have a similar affect of creating new program sites.”

Participants of Blessings in a Backpack receive six items in their weekend bags, each of which includes two entrees, two breakfast dishes, and two snacks. (Courtesy of Northwestern Dance Marathon)