Micky Bearden and Vera Cragin, right, grab supplies to be stuffed into backpacks during a Food Backpacks 4 Kids packing session last month at Evergreen Elementary School. Photo by Scott Turner, KP News

Every Friday afternoon, more than 400 youngsters on the Key Peninsula receive backpacks filled with a weekend’s worth of food for their families through a districtwide program called Food Backpacks 4 Kids.

According to Diba Wickline, Food Backpacks 4 Kids’executive director, the program began in 2009 when several Key Peninsula residents wanted to do something “to help food-insecure kids”––especially kids at Evergreen Elementary School.

“The first week, we filled nine backpacks and they went solely to children at Evergreen,” Wickline said. “Now our all-time high that we have filled in one week has been 547.”

The backpacks are filled with tuna, chicken, pasta-roni meals, soup, ravioli, spaghetti, whole grain cereals, shelf-stable milk, canned soups, canned vegetables, canned fruits, fruit cups, puddings, “all kind of things,” Wickline said.

“We put things in there that the kids will enjoy and that they can use by themselves. So we also include things like instant oatmeal, boxed fruit juices, peanut butter and jelly, granola bars and things like that,” she said.

At the beginning of the school year when eligible families sign up for the state’s “Free and Reduced Lunch Program,” they also qualify to receive a backpack.

“We don’t want any identification from them, all we want is for them to fill out a form that lets us know if there are any allergies, any intolerances such as gluten or peanut allergies or anything that might be harmful or not healthy for that family to take home,” Wickline explained. “We make sure that we are very careful about that.”

The program’s No. 1 priority, she said, is “making sure these children have nutrition that will help them be able to learn and to retain what they learn in school.”

“If a child is hungry, chances are they’re not going to retain a lot of what they hear, they’re going to be distractible and maybe even unhealthy,” she said.

“Children that are food-insecure get sick more; they have more health issues because they don’t have adequate nutrition that will help them to grow and to fight off illness or disease,” she added.

As a 501c3 nonprofit organization, the Backpacks program is run almost entirely by volunteers (Wickline is the only paid staffer).

Every Wednesday, volunteers gather at Key Peninsula Middle School to fill backpacks for Key Peninsula-area kids.

There are also packing sites in Gig Harbor for schools located on that side of the Purdy bridge.

Partnerships and donations also play an important role in their success. Partners include the Emergency Food Network, Gig Harbor Rotary North, Key Peninsula Lions, Loving Hearts, PEO, and “a lot of very generous community members who help us out,”  Wickline said.

Each backpack contains about $10 worth of food ––some weeks it’s more, some weeks it’s less, she said. “We have to keep really close tabs on what we get, what we buy and what’s donated to us,” she said.

Families larger than the standard four-person model receive additional backpacks.

Besides the Food Backpacks 4 Kids program that runs through the school year, organizers also sponsor a summer lunch program when school isn’t in session.

“It runs at the KP Civic Center three days a week,”Wickline said. “It’s a fresh-cooked hot meal that could be anything from sloppy joes to grilled ham and cheese sandwiches to spaghetti.

“We make sure it’s well-balanced and if the child is hungry for more than one lunch, they can have another. As long as they finish their first one, they can certainly have a second one,” she said.

Last summer, the group also launched a crockpot program in which any family that asks, receives a free crockpot, a recipe book and bulk items such as rice or beans, oatmeal and “a bunch of spices,” Wickline said. “Who doesn’t love the smell of something cooking in a crockpot?” she said.

There’s also a garden seed program that began at the end of last school year.

“We started sending seeds home with the backpacks so the families can start having their own gardens,”she said.

To encourage reading and literacy, there’s a partnership with the Key Peninsula Resource Center and Communities in Schools Peninsula.

“We’re sending books home with the backpacks so the children can begin to start their own personal libraries at home. That’s been really well received by the kids and they’ve been really excited about it,” Wickline said. “We’re trying to build personal libraries for 525 kids.”

Hugh Maxwell, principal at Evergreen Elementary, is a big supporter of the backpacks program. “It takes the place of our school day lunches during the week, so we know that they’ve had food over the weekend and on Monday morning they’re ready to learn,” Maxwell said.

“Nutrition is so important for kids –– having the food over the weekend makes a big difference. Kids don’t learn well when they’re hungry,” he added.

Sue Kingsbury-Surratt, health tech and office assistant at Evergreen, agreed. “We have a high percentage of students here who are on the Free And Reduced Lunch Program and some of these kids are only eating at school,” Kingsbury-Surratt said.

“So when the weekend comes, that’s the difference of them eating or not eating. With the cost of groceries today, that’s another reason this is so important to our families and our kids because food is just another big expense. So the community support is huge as far as the kids getting the nutrition and the calories they need.

“And we know if the kids miss getting their backpack, they’re really upset. They just really look forward to it,” she said.

For information about Food Backpacks 4 Kids, visit peninsulacommunityfoundation.com. To volunteer or donate to the program, call Wickline at (253) 720-5553.

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