Summer break began last week in the Peninsula School District, a nearly universal cause for celebration for kids.
Yet for some students, the end of the school year also means the end of free, nutritious and easily obtained meals. That’s where the Food Backpacks 4 Kids program, based on the Key Peninsula and serving the wider Gig Harbor area, steps in.
Food Backpacks 4 Kids operates two weekly drop-in lunch sites, which launch July 5. The nonprofit’s efforts are especially critical this summer, as a key government program that provided free summertime meals during the Covid-19 years is coming to an end.
Volunteers unload a delivery at the Food Backpacks 4 Kids Food Pantry on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Vince Dice
Food Backpacks 4 Kids is especially active during the school year. True to its name, the nonprofit provides nutrition-packed backpacks for kids to take home at a number of PSD schools. It also stocks Care Cupboards, essentially food pantries from which students can pick staples to take home.
“It has food items that kids can use to make a meal. Or they can just get a snack,” said Michelle Johnson, communications director for Food Backpacks 4 Kids. “If they need food to take home, they can just put it in their own backpack.”
It’s a critical service. Even in relatively upscale Peninsula School District communities like Gig Harbor, many students are couch-surfing or experiencing other forms of housing insecurity.
“Having that direct access is important,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of kids who are on their own” when it comes to finding food.
Food Backpacks 4 Kids volunteers load up supplies before delivering food to clients on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Vince Dice
During the 2021-2022 school year, Food Backpacks provided PSD students with more than 15,000 pounds of food items. That includes 11,083 pounds via backpacks and another 4,112 through the Care Cupboards program.
Each backpack contains at least 5 pounds of nutritious snacks and child-friendly foods. Students take the packs home on Friday and bring them back the next week to be replenished. Eleven PSD schools have students who receive a weekly food backpack.
Care cupboards cater to students who may feel uncomfortable carrying home a backpack of food. The cupboards allow students to discreetly get food for at school or to take home. They are in six of PSD’s seven secondary schools, as well as two elementaries.
Of course, when kids aren’t in school, they can’t get the backpacks or access the cupboards.
“Once school stops, our concern is, where are they going to get food?” Johnson said.
Food Backpacks provides free lunches twice a week at Gateway Park near Purdy and Home Park on the Key Peninsula. Lunches are provided at noon Tuesdays and Thursday, between July 5 and Aug. 25.
The program, called Summer Lunch in the Park, is especially important this year.
During the past two summers, a waiver related to Covid-19 relief allowed school districts to hand out free lunches during summer. The waiver was not renewed this spring, and the program will not be available most places this year.
Even with the school-based lunch program active last year, Food Backpacks provided some 2,000 pre-packaged lunches at two sites last summer. The nonprofit will continue the effort this summer with support and funding from Chapel Hill Church and Harbor Hill Christian Center.
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“We know it’s not going to hit every kid that needs it. We try to get as many as possible,” Johnson said.
Volunteers unload watermelons delivered to the Food Backpacks 4 Kids Food Pantry on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Vince Dice
The group was founded in 2009, when members of an area church heard about a similar program elsewhere and decided to try their own version.
It slowly grew, mostly via word-of-mouth. By 2018, it was providing about 400 backpacks per week in PSD schools, each with about 10 pounds of food — “Enough to supply a family of four for the weekend,” Johnson said.
For Food Backpacks, Covid and the resulting lockdown changed everything. “Within an hour (of hearing schools were closing), our model completely changed,” Johnson said.
The nonprofit operated with a drive-up distribution model during the lockdown. It obtained grant money to buy freezers and expanded its offerings to include more fresh food after previously providing mostly nonperishables.
When schools re-opened, the backpacks and cupboards returned. The nonprofit also added a Family Pantry, a food bank-style warehouse located at 9127 154th Ave Ct. NW in Lakebay.
Groceries at the Food Pantry at Food Backpacks 4 Kids on the Key Peninsula. Vince Dice
The pantry provides food for any who need it. It’s open from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays and from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays.
The pantry gets food through the Emergency Food Network and is supported by a grant from the Altrusa Foundation of Gig Harbor and others. It has provided some 250,000 pounds of food to the community since September.
A core group of volunteers provide the labor for the Family Pantry. Among them are a cadre of PSD students, several of whom were working there instead of celebrating the last day of school on June 22.
The pantry has been well-received, Johnson said.
“This is so much nicer for us and for the (client) families,” she said. “It’s all about creating an atmosphere for our families that’s like going to a grocery store.”
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