Hoss took notice of a box of canned goods; at first, he thought it was for some type of drive. But the teacher explained that some students needed access to food on the weekends. Hoss returned to Share and said, “We have to do something about this.”
The program was born and quickly grew legs. Three volunteers working in a back room making a handful of backpacks rapidly became hundreds of participants and deliveries.
“It’s a great example about how we in Southwest Washington, when we find a need, identify resources and respond,” Hoss said. “It really shows that in this community, we take care of our own, we respond to needs, and we’re responsive to those that are most impacted by problems, like hunger, like homelessness and so many other serious issues.”
Flash forward two decades, and the program serves 85 schools and family resource centers across Clark County. The bags are assembled on Thursdays and delivered to each school for distribution by school counselors.
The Backpack Program also provides snacks for students who may be unaccompanied youth or anyone who may need extra food.
“It gives kids an access to folks like counselors or transition coaches, who may say, ‘Hey, come grab a snack; and while you’re here, let’s catch up on what is going on with you,’ ” said Becci Read-Ryan, former meal and nutrition program manager for Share.
Looking forward, Reynolds said that the program will continue to grow based on community needs. Staff also hope to add more culturally appropriate dietary options for families.
“Food connects people, and this is one way that we and schools can connect with one another,” she said.
Breaking the cycle
Volunteers worked in an efficient assembly line on what was the last day of the Backpack Program until the next school year, placing canned goods and nonperishables into red, blue and purple cloth tote bags.
Each bag contains a canned fruit or vegetable, a boxed dinner like mac-and-cheese, pasta noodles, a canned protein (usually tuna), and a fruit snack pouch. A majority of the food is supplied by donations, the Clark County Food Bank and Fresh Food Pantries.
Becky Parker, a longtime volunteer, helped near a small hill of tote bags waiting to be loaded into cars.
Parker has volunteered with the Backpack Program since almost the beginning. Her husband was on Share’s board and came home one day telling her all about the new food supply program.
“I was a stay-at-home mom with kids that had plenty to eat, and it really blew my mind that there were kids that would say, ‘Mom, I’m hungry’ and there wasn’t anything to eat,” she said. “I thought this was such a simple way to get food to families in need.”
Parker went on to work with Share for several years and now works as a family resource coordinator for Evergreen Public Schools, volunteering on the side.
“It’s hard to describe when a family comes to me and they’re really struggling. And their expectation is that they are going to be told, ‘You need to work harder to get food. There is nothing we can do for you,’ ” Parker said. “But I get to say, ‘Here is this food I can send home with your child every week.’ It obviously doesn’t fix the problem, but it eases their mind.”
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of living swelling with inflation, Share saw a jump in how many families needed help. Read-Ryan said they went from 900 to 1,200 bags delivered each week last fall.
According to a study by Feeding America, about 10 percent of people in Clark County are food insecure, lacking adequate food to meet basic needs. And homelessness continues to be on the rise across the county; about 2,400 students were experiencing homelessness this school year (data from September to March).
The program aims to be one way to help break the area’s food-hunger cycle.
“We’re in almost every school in Clark County so if you need food, never be afraid to talk with your schools, family resource centers or counselors. The program is open for everyone,” Read-Ryan said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.