Bridging the gap

Local organizations partner with schools to help feed hungry students on the weekends

Edie Hagstrom, social worker at Helen Baller Elementary School, prepares bags of food for the school's weekend backpack program, which provides easy to prepare meals and snacks for children in need.

Donating to the weekend backpack programs

Food can be donated at the following organizations. Include information that the food is to go toward the backpack program, and at which school, if any.

East County Family Resource Center: 1702 “C” St., Washougal, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It serves Gause Elementary and Hathaway Elementary.

Inter-Faith Treasure House: 91 “C” St., Washougal, from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. It serves Helen Baller Elementary and Liberty Middle School.

Share: 2306 N.E. Andresen Road, Vancouver, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. It serves students at Hayes Freedom High School.

Most needed items

Most needed items include: Tuna and mayonnaise packets, peanut butter and jelly, almond butter, powdered milk, almond milk in single serve container, refried beans, pancake mix, beef jerky, dried fruit, single serving cereal boxes, nuts, pop top soups, ravioli, chilli, V8 juice, Jell-O cups, fruit cups, boxed juices, bottled water, macaroni and cheese, granola bars, protein bars, crackers.

Donations should be brought in plastic jars, as these are often being given to young children. Small, travel sized toiletries are also accepted.

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Food for backpack programs typically includes the makings for two simple meals per weekend day and a snack. Several of the school social workers also try to include fresh produce of some kind, as well as toiletries, when available.

What do you do when you’re hungry? For most of us, it’s a simple matter of deciding what to make or buy.But imagine how it would feel to have your stomach growling, not enough to satisfy it and being unsure of when or what you would have for your next meal. Then, consider how it would feel to be expected to sit still and focus all day when you hadn’t had a full meal for more than 48 hours?

This “food insecurity” is a reality for many children in single-parent families, of the working poor or unemployed.

However, there are programs in place at several local schools in Camas and Washougal, to help bridge the gap between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.

The Backpack Program, sponsored by local non-profit organizations, provides easy to prepare meals and snacks on the weekends and breaks during the school year.

The East County Family Resource Center in Washougal partners with Hathaway and Gause elementary schools. Woodburn Elementary, in Camas, could potentially be added in the future. Many program donations come from school or community food drives, as well as civic groups and churches.

Typically, students are referred by teachers or school counselors. The food is given out discreetly in backpacks or reusable bags, so that the recipients do not feel uncomfortable in front of their classmates.

“We started with Hathaway since they had the most needy children, according to free and reduced lunch numbers,” said Renee Law, center coordinator. “Kids were coming to school on Monday unable to sit still and concentrate. When they were asked to go talk to the school counselor or social worker, it was determined they were simply hungry. It is sad, but true and that is where we can help.”

Gause Elementary was added to the program last year, when a student focused on the issue as part of a senior project at Washougal High School. It began with five students.

The program has flourished since then, according to Julie Bristol, school social worker, and now serves 22 students. In addition, the school has embraced the program, hosting two food drives which brought in 4,000 items. Living Purpose Church in Washougal has volunteered to provide fresh produce every week.

“The program has been extremely well received, by not only the families who receive the food donations, but our whole school community,” Bristol said. “Our teachers, families and students are excited to help. Additionally, the students who receive the bags literally can’t wait to take another bag home the next week. I have some students that ask me at least two or three times every week about when they will get their next bag of food.”

She added that the backpack program has become much more than simply filling a nutritional need.

“The food drives have taught all of our students the value of generosity, empathy and compassion for others,” Bristol said. “I feel that the reason the food drives have been so successful is because kids realize that they are helping kids that attend our school and friends that they may know. The students who receive the bags feel proud that they are able to help their families, because even though the bags are designed for the student, often they end up sharing with other members of the family. The kids feel like they are doing their part to contribute to the family.”

Even though the bags are distributed discreetly, Bristol has observed many students walk away, smiling and announcing to anyone they see, “I just got a bag of food!”

This year, all of the families who receive the food bags were offered winter coats for all the children, and food to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner.

Bristol is pleased with how the school has rallied around the program, and said the more donations received, the more students can be helped.

“We are always looking for more food donations,” she said. “We have almost doubled the number of students who receive the bags since the beginning of the school year, and the number continues to rise.”

Bristol is now working with student Paige Bentley on her senior project to start a program at Washougal and Excelsior high schools in January.

“I wanted to start the program at the high school because I wanted to do something that helped the community,” Bentley said. “There are 13 students who will benefit from this program.”

Bentley added that selection was private and she does not know who the students are.

Easing a financial burden

In Camas, Helen Baller Elementary and Liberty Middle School partner with the local Inter-faith Treasure House, while Hayes Freedom High School works with Share, a Vancouver non-profit that helps the hungry and homeless.

Helen Baller is in its third year of the backpack program, which was proposed by longtime volunteer Tammra Ells, who also coordinates the program at Liberty Middle School.

There are 17 students served there and 41 at Liberty, which is next door to Helen Baller.

“Tammra keeps us going by sorting the food by family and delivering it to (us) every Friday,” said Edie Hagstrom, school social worker.

This year, all 17 families on the program at Helen Baller also received Thanksgiving food boxes from Lifepoint Church.

“We also have a community member who writes a check every year for me to use to support gaps in funding for our students in the lunchroom and for the backpack program,” Hagstrom said. “It takes our students sometimes a week or more for the paperwork to process for them to receive free and reduced meals, so this money fills in the gap.

“You can imagine how hard it would be to concentrate on school work if you are hungry. I have had kids come to class and talk about being hungry all day.”

Hagstrom adds to the weekend backpack food supply with bananas and apples from the cafeteria, which some students were throwing away whole and uneaten.

“I started to collect those before they got tossed into the recycling bins in order to supplement our families with some fresh produce,” Hagstrom said.

She added that the program at Helen Baller is designed to serve the working poor. Teachers will often let her know if a student is consistently saying they are hungry, or if a parent has reported a job loss or other financial hardship.

“Most of my families work but their income needs to go to gas because the job is in other parts of the county, or to rent because they may have been unemployed for years and are behind, or to household utilities,” Hagstrom said. “They often can make payment plans with other bills but it is impossible to go into a grocery store and get a payment plan. These students are generally on free and reduced meals at school so we feed them two meals a day and then they may struggle on the weekends.”

When a family is having financial troubles, it can be hard for students to see their friends do the simple things, like bring snacks to school or buy books at the book fair, while they must go without.

“This program may help ease the financial load on a family’s food budget so they have a little extra to buy those things that helps a kid feel normal,” Hagstrom said. “There are so many extras that a school asks from our families, from pictures to planners to school supplies to field trips, so anything we can do helps.”

A different set of issues

At the high school level, students in need are sometimes embarrassed to let counselors know they need services. Consequently, it can be hard to begin food programs without being able to show a clear need.

Leotina Liebe, Camas High School counselor, has experienced this firsthand.

“I am exploring options of whether we can start a backpack program or create a small version of a food bank,” she said. “The problem is, that in order to get assistance from an organization, we have to have identified a certain number of students who qualify for free or reduced meals.”

Students at the high school level who need these services are often homeless or staying at different friends’ houses to escape an unpleasant home life, and are reluctant to identify themselves, or their parents simply do not want to fill out paperwork to receive free and reduced meals.

“We know that we have some (in need) each year and unfortunately, it can be difficult to identify who needs the help,” Liebe said.

Becky Parker, hunger response assistant director for Share, helps coordinate the backpack program at Hayes Freedom High School. Overall, Share serves 80 schools in Clark County and delivers more than 1,900 backpacks on a weekly basis.

“Many of the high school students who receive backpacks are living in a situation where they do not have easy, consistent access to a kitchen,” she said. “They may be living in their cars or couch surfing at a friend’s house. At many of the high schools we serve, including Hayes Freedom, we provide backpacks as well as a pantry box for the school, which contain items that are easy to eat on the go and don’t require a kitchen. The kids can pick from these items to get what they need the most.”