Food to Those in Need
Local organization pivots distribution model
By Colin Anderson
When the location of the service you provide your community is found in schools and they suddenly close, how do you continue to meet that need? That was the question facing Food Backpacks 4 Kids one year ago. Started in 2009, the program has greatly expanded from handing out a few backpacks stuffed with non-perishable food from a church parking lot, to sending home hundreds of packs each week all throughout schools across the Key Peninsula and Gig Harbor. Before schools were officially closed, the board and volunteers were already planning the next move and, because of that planning, were able to continue their mission to meet the nutritional needs of hungry children in local schools at times when other resources are not available.
“As soon as schools closed, within an hour we flipped our entire process and were now a drive-up food distribution organization,” explained Office Administrator Michelle Johnson.
Michelle came to the organization a few years back after retiring from the fire department. She began as a volunteer, and when an opening in the organization became available, jumped at the opportunity to take on a larger role. Part of what appealed to Michelle about Food Backpacks 4 Kids was that the nonprofit was always brainstorming and thinking outside the box—something that came in very handy when the pandemic first shut down schools and increased demand for food.
“We went from an anonymous program with the backpacks to now asking people to trust us in the drive-up model, and they did,” she said.
In the beginning, some 400-plus families would visit one of the three drive-up food distribution centers including the Peninsula Marketplace location in Gig Harbor. With many of the volunteers aged 65 and older, it was challenging at first to find people who could operate safely and lift heavy boxes of food. Once word spread, however, many local teachers and a few students as well stepped up to help their students and classmates. “It was great for families to see a familiar face when they pulled up to get their box,” said Michelle.
While the rush at the beginning has tapered off some, Food Backpacks 4 Kids continues to serve roughly 200 families, including 550 children, each week. During the week, approximately 8,000 pounds of food is moved around between deliveries and packing up the boxes for pickup. On Wednesdays, deliveries are taken in and sorted onto shelves. The organization is able to supply the food through a combination of monetary donations from volunteers, individuals and businesses, grants and supplemental government programs. Depending on what is received, a meal plan is developed in order to maximize use of items found in each weekly food box. When the organization was just sending backpacks home, they could only include non-perishable items, but with the drive-by system, it can now include milk, meat and fresh produce. “It’s wonderful, as we are able to expand our offerings and feed our families better with more nutritional foods,” explained Michelle.
While there are many volunteers to help with the various tasks it takes to put this grand distribution together each week, young people are a major part of it. Local high school students help with the prep on Wednesdays and the distribution on Fridays as part of course credit for certain classes. Food Backpacks 4 Kids also partners with Communities in Schools, which provides young people and recent graduates in crisis with mentoring and job training. These participants work key roles in the warehouse learning supply chain and business operation skills, while also having a huge impact on the community around them.
On Fridays, volunteers begin preparations in the morning so they are ready to welcome those in need when they open up at 3pm. Those in attendance don’t just drop a box in a trunk and send them on their way, but rather check up on families weekly to assess their situation and see if they are getting the help they need. Participants come from all walks of life.
“We have families working two jobs, and their income doesn’t qualify them for any additional assistance. This food provides them with a little wiggle room for other expenses like a utility bill or car payment,” Michelle said.
Michelle confirms that tears are shed each week, for many different reasons. “We have a woman who has a family, recently took in her nephews, works full time and still volunteers with us. She is just getting by but also still giving back, and the food we provide her gives her that little bit of breathing room, which is what it’s all about.”
With schools likely to return to more in-person learning, Backpacks 4 Kids is planning to adapt as well. It’s seen great success with the drive-up model and will continue to do so to meet community needs. Another area it will pick back up is the food pantries it stocks in area middle and high schools. If teachers or counselors are made aware of a hungry student, they can bring them to the pantry for supplies in a more private manner, helping to eliminate any of the potential “stigma” bringing home a backpack of food might cause for young people.
If you are interested in learning about volunteer opportunities or would like to make a donation, visit FoodBackpacks4Kids.org.