A Christmas gift to Superior students 10 years ago now feeds kids throughout the region.

Tellers at National Bank of Commerce came up with the idea over the holidays.

“Instead of giving things to each other, we wanted to reach out to those in need,” said Cindy Theien, retail banking director for National Bank of Commerce.

Partnering with the United Way of Superior/Douglas County and the Superior School District, they launched Nutrition On Weekends in February 2010 to support kids who don't have enough food to eat at home.

“We’re able to send the bags home either on a short week or a Friday so that we know kids have food in the home over the weekend when they wouldn’t have access to school meals,” said Nicky Wilson, coordinator of Family Support Services for the School District of Superior.

The first week, 13 bags were distributed.

“We started with one school because we wanted to see how it would work, if it would work and if it was needed, and it was needed,” Theien said.

The program now provides food to over 1,000 children in 44 Northland schools each weekend, including students in the Maple and Solon Springs school districts. Partners gathered Wednesday, Feb. 12, to celebrate the program’s 10th anniversary.

Food was initially purchased and packed by volunteers at a National Bank of Commerce branch.

“We had boxes and collected food,” Theien said. “Children would come in with the food they thought would be good for their friends, sometimes a lot of chocolate. But they wanted to take care of their friends that did not have enough food.”

As the program grew, Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank got involved to provide purchasing power.

“Because every $1 to Second Harvest is worth $10,” of food, Wilson said.

Soon after Second Harvest got involved in 2011, the nonprofit took the lead for food acquisition, volunteer packing and distribution. Now part of the national BackPack Program, it serves students in six counties.

“We want to take this opportunity to thank the Superior School District and National Bank of Commerce for really having the foresight to be thinking about children in our community,” said Shaye Moris, executive director of Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank. “To think this program has been around 10 years is amazing.”

By starting with a single district, Wilson said, founders were able to work out the kinks, from how to identify students and how to get the bags filled to how to distribute the bags confidentially.

Volunteers fill the backpacks the first consecutive Thursday and Friday of the month at Second Harvest. They’re packed with easy-to-open, easy-to-prepare foods like shelf-stable milk, cereal, cans of soup and more.

“Balancing that bag of nutrition is something we have really paid attention to,” Moris said. “We want kids to have nutrition on weekends, but we also know it has to be palatable.”

She said Second Harvest is also experimenting with larger bags of food for students in Cloquet, Minnesota, that they can share with their family members.

The program is funded through partnerships — community fundraisers, individual donors who drop money off at the bank, donations from businesses, service groups and church groups. The average cost for a backpack full of food is $3.50.

Founders of the program didn’t expect it to get so large.

“It was basically to help children on the weekends, we thought in our area, but when we saw the need elsewhere …,” Theien said. “ We had no idea.”

Groups, organizations and individuals can volunteer to help pack bags by contacting Second Harvest at 218-727-5653 or info@northernlakesfoodbank.org.