Brody LaRock waits until recess to deliver the food.
While the kids of John Hay Elementary School play outside, LaRock carries bags of food into classrooms and surreptitiously slips them into the backpacks of 15 kids at the 500-student school on Queen Anne Hill.
Each bag contains cans of soup, crackers, tuna, granola bars and fresh fruit. There’s enough food to get a student through the next two days: two breakfasts, two lunches, three dinners and snacks.
At John Hay Elementary, 16 percent of the student body gets free or reduced lunch each school day, but that doesn’t help them Saturday and Sunday — something teachers notice when the kids are back in school. The Queen Anne Helpline, which operates a food pantry that provides non-perishable foods, launched a program this month to bring food directly to schools that kids can take home for the weekend.
“Children, when they’re hungry, they’re not able to pay attention in class, they can’t grow, they can’t learn as well,” said Nancy McKinney, executive director of the Ballard Food Bank, which purchases the food for the Helpline. “Sometimes parents don’t have the capacity to make it to the food bank.”
So anti-hunger nonprofits decided to stop relying on parents to get the food from the food bank and instead bring it directly to the kids to take home.
Teachers see students every day and can identify the signs of hunger in students whose grades are slipping or who show up to class fatigued, said Gil Gillmor, executive director of Neighbors in Need, a food bank in Mount Vernon.
“It’s the most targeted nutrition program we have at the food bank,” he said. “It’s getting it exactly where it needs to go, according to the professionals.”
The Arkansas Rice Depot, a Little Rock-based non-profit, initiated the first food backpack program in 1994. A school nurse called the Rice Depot asking for help because students were coming to school with headaches and stomach problems that she attributed to malnutrition.
It was a new approach to hunger. Food banks try to fill their clients’ pantries and refrigerators with nutrient-dense staples such as meats, grains and vegetables. Backpack programs provide kids with low-prep or no-prep meals to be eaten the weekend they receive the food. The contents vary, but a typical bag contains two containers of milk, a personal-sized box of breakfast cereal, two instant oatmeal packets, peanut butter, jam, tuna fish, mayonnaise, enough bread for two sandwiches, a box of macaroni and cheese, a can of soup, a can of chili and some snacks, including fresh fruit, granola bars, crackers and juice.
Administrators slip the food into backpacks when students are outside of the classroom to avoid stigmatizing the students receiving the help.
“Nobody knows it’s food,” said Lisa Moore, executive director of the Queen Anne Helpline.
Seattle food banks provide food for backpacks to more than two dozen schools in Seattle. Northwest Harvest launched its program in 2004 and now delivers food to nine school districts. Northwest Harvest was an early adopter of the Arkansas model, and now there are weekend programs across the nation.
The Queen Anne Helpline and the West Seattle Food Bank launched their programs in November at a handful of neighborhood schools, and hope to expand them to more schools.
Weekend food programs are costlier and more complex than food banks. Food banks can feed a family a full meal for a dollar by purchasing in bulk. It costs as much as $8 to fill a backpack for one child for the weekend.
“It’s really expensive to buy little cans of fruit in individual servings,” said Elise DeGooyer, hunger response manager for Northwest Harvest.
Food bank officials started meeting Nov. 14 to figure out how to expand to new areas, particularly underserved communities in South Seattle.
Once off the ground, weekend food programs tend to grow quickly, said Jan Starr, executive director of Backpack Meals for Kids in Bellevue. Her organization served 20 kids when it started in 2011. Earlier this month, Starr helped pack 100 bags to send out to several schools on the Eastside.
The program finds the families who aren’t already served by food banks, either because they are unaware or do not have the time to get themselves there, Starr said.
“We have people living in cars, we have people who work service jobs and don’t make enough money to provide for their family,” Starr said. “They’re in a time in their life that they really need help.”