EVELETH — Flavor of the North is one of United Way’s most anticipated events of the year.

And that’s a good thing — not only for the area restaurants that have a chance to show off some of their best fare and the participants who get to sample and vote on it — but most of all for the hundreds of Iron Range children who struggle with hunger.

This year’s 10th annual fundraiser set for 5:30 p.m. April 25 at the Range Recreation Civic Center in Eveleth will again support the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota’s Buddy Backpack program.

The initiative provides nutritious, kid-friendly meal kits to youngsters in critical need of food support during each weekend of the school year.

Children who receive Buddy Backpack kits are aware of how the program helps them and their families.

“It makes me feel like I am going to have dinner today and I like healthy food which we can’t afford,” one child said in a survey of participants from the 2017-2018 school year.

“It makes me feel good and helps keep me full,” said another.

“It gives me and my four siblings food because we don’t have much at home,” stated a third child.

According to the UWNEMN, one in five children struggles with hunger in northeastern Minnesota, and an average of 47 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Not every child who qualifies for free and reduced lunch, however, is assisted by Buddy Backpack, noted Elizabeth Kelly, UWNEMN development and special events director. Children in the program are the most critically in need, she said. “Buddy Backpack takes it a step further.”

And the need keeps growing.

“We are at an all-time high,” Kelly said. “Last year, we served 787 with Buddy Backpacks on the Iron Range in 14 school districts and all Head Start sites. This year 850 children are enrolled on the Range.”

The program additionally serves more than 100 children in four school districts and one Head Start in Koochiching County.

Last year’s Flavor of the North raised more than $40,000 for Buddy Backpack. Organizers are hoping to exceed that during the 10th anniversary event.

Food and beverage establishments from across the Range will serve up a selection of appetizers, entrees, desserts and beverages, and attendees will vote by secret ballot for their favorites.

The beverage category is new this year, Kelly said.

“We are also bringing back the mystery raffle, which was very popular last year,” she said. “A huge silent auction and raffles” will raise additional funds.

Cost is $50 per person and limited to 450 attendees.

“People in the northland look forward to it every year,” Kelly said. “It’s our own ‘Top Chef’ competition.” The event is a taste “of what’s out there in our culinary scene” and a fun way “to benefit such a needed program in our community.”

The Buddy Backpack survey also revealed that 88 percent of children said they felt cared for by receiving the meal kits; 63 percent had an increase in energy level; and 58 percent had improved school attendance.

“One student cried when given the backpack because she had nothing in her house to eat for the weekend. Our students are always thankful for whatever they get,” said one of the school staff members and nurses who were also surveyed.

Another said: “A lot of children that attend this school don’t have much at home. I have seen older children be happy about receiving it because they can make sure they are fed as well as share with younger siblings on the weekend.”

Kids also said they felt “more secure,” had improved self esteem and felt “relieved” because of Buddy Backpack.

Last year, more than 30,000 kits were packed at 21 volunteer packing sessions.

It’s those volunteers and events like Flavor of the North that help local food insecure youngsters feel more secure — and do better in school with their bellies full, Kelly said.

Thanks to Buddy Backpack, children are saying things like: “I get food in my tummy when I’m hungry at home!”

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Confirmed participating businesses and menu items for this year’s Flavor of the North include:

• Black Bear Bakery: Assorted muffins.

• BoomTown Brewery & Woodfire Grill: Braised pork belly with rum rhubarb glaze; salted caramel banana cheesecake; peanut butter porter.

• Burnt Onion Kitchen & Brews: Smoked pork sliders with cinnamon caramel aioli and roasted apple.

• Caribou Coffee: Malted mocha cooler; iced malted crafted press.

• Castle Danger: Tasting of its beers.

• Chiqui’s Chocolates: Assorted caramels and chocolates.

• Dahl’s Sunrise Dairy: To be determined.

• Fraboni Sausage Company: Meatballs and cranberry brats with wild rice.

• Grandma’s Virginia Grill: Sweet chili brussels sprouts.

• HCC Culinary Program: Chocolate truffles.

• High On The Hog: To be determined.

• Koshar’s Sausage Kitchen: Porketta sandwiches.

• Natural Harvest Food Co-op: Jackfruit sliders.

• Northern Divide Bar & Eatery: Smoked ribs with housemade barbecue sauce.

• Paul’s Market & Catering: Sweet and sour meatballs; Swedish meatballs.

• Phillips Wine & Spirits and Silver Creek Liquor: Assorted wines and spirits.

• Sawmill Saloon & Restaurant: Chicken lettuce wraps; watermelon margaritas.

• Sugarspoon Cheesecakes: Raspberry almond cheesecake.

• Sunrise Bakery: To be determined.

• The Whistling Bird: Coconut shrimp with wasabi marmalade.

• The Hive Coffee and Bakehouse: Coffee; cupcakes.

• The Sugar Shack: Famous sugar cookies.

• Valentini’s Supper Club: Prime rib pappardelle stroganoff.

• The Wilderness Grill: Poke tower; banana Mazatlan waffles; The Wilderness Bootlegger.

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