Share Backpack Program provides food for growing minds

The effort helps hungry schoolchildren in a variety of ways

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

The Backpack Program didn't take long to outgrow its initial clientele of 75 children. It didn't take long to outgrow its namesake, either.

But after nine years, thousands of kids and a couple of transitions in take-home technology, it's still the Share Backpack Program.

Share, a Vancouver-based nonprofit organization, sends more than 1,500 food bags home with local children each Friday during the school year.

Volunteers at the Share Fromhold Service Center pack 11,000 pounds of food into those 1,500 take-home bags each week, then distribute them to about 70 schools in six districts.

A unique challenge at one school recently showed the commitment of Share volunteers and school staffers, said Diane McWithey, executive director of Share.

In February, a fire destroyed Crestline Elementary School in the Evergreen district.

"Crestline burned on a Sunday," McWithey said. Evergreen Superintendent John Deeder had those displaced children back in class, at five different elementary schools, on the following Thursday.

"And we had the backpacks follow the children to the appropriate schools on Friday," McWithey said.

To have the bags delivered to the right children at five different schools with no lapse in service, well, "that says so much for those counselors and teachers," McWithey said.

Crestline counselor Kirsten Bledsoe choreographed that seamless transition, Evergreen spokeswoman Carol Fenstermacher said.

Clark County Public Health is not involved in the program, but the department conducted a survey in 2012 to evaluate it.

"There was a sense that it was a good program, overall, but there was no research or data," said Tricia Mortell, public health program manager.

A classroom payoff

The families receiving the food were big fans, not surprisingly. But feedback from teachers provided what Mortell called an amazing data point. Teachers were asked whether children in the Backpack Program had demonstrated improvement in seven areas: attendance, attentiveness, energy level, appearance, classroom behavior, academic performance and social skills.

About 65 percent of the students improved in at least one category. In all seven categories, about half the students showed improvement, Mortell said.

Mortell sees the faces of hungry children through her own volunteer efforts. Twice a week, she and other adult volunteers accompany a group of children who walk to Washington Elementary School together.

The "walking school bus" concept has a lot of benefits, Mortell said, but "one reason was to make sure the children get there in time for breakfast."

School nutrition programs take weekends off, so Share decided in 2004 to provide food for Saturday or Sunday meals.

Volunteers filled 75 backpacks with food for the weekend, then dropped them off at three local elementary schools.

After a couple of months, the Share organizers had to alter their delivery system. Some younger kids heading home with bookbags on their backs had trouble hefting another backpack with up to 10 pounds of food.

"We started using shopping bags the very first year. Winco gave us plastic bags for years," McWithey said.

As the program expanded, McWithey said, she realized that it was sending a lot of plastic bags into the waste stream. Now the food is delivered in reusable bags.

Some are the fabric tote bags you see in any supermarket. Others come from conference organizers and trade-show promoters who have leftover "swag" bags.

Can't feed them all

They can be used time after time — and Share encourages the children to bring the bags back.

More than 30,000 public school children in Clark County qualify for free or reduced-price meals, so 1,500 food bags can't serve them all.

McWithey heard a story from a teacher that illustrates the point.

"It broke my heart," McWithey said.

The teacher said a mom had come to school on a Monday with a full food bag.

The previous Friday, a second-grade girl who was part of the Backpack Program was heading home with her weekend food bag. She saw a boy who was sad because he didn't get food to take home.

"She just gave him her bag," McWithey said. "His mom brought it back, knowing the girl's family had been expecting that food."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.