For the more than 3,304 kids in Seattle Public Schools currently experiencing homelessness, free and reduced-price school lunch (FRL) can comprise much of the food these students eat during the week. Without school on the weekends, they are left hungry.
Food backpack programs serve over 2,700 students in the Seattle Public School District and help them combat weekend hunger. Packages of food are distributed once a week to schools, and kids get the vital nutrition they need. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, students without “adequate night-time residence” qualify for this critical support.
Food for Schools is a coalition of backpack programs in Seattle and various PTA members, teachers, administrators and city officials. Like the Seattle Food Committee, this committee is staffed by Solid Ground’s Food System Support and meets to discuss best practices and facilitate communication.
“We just learn from each other,” says Nichelle Hilton who founded Food for Schools and is also Executive Director of Backpack Brigade. “One of the great things was trying to standardize things. How do you get your funding? Where do you purchase your food? What’s your menu? How do you package?”
“Another one of our goals was the percentage rate of the FRL. One of the first goals was to be in every school with an 80% FRL rate. This year, we are at 35%,” continues Nichelle.
Nichelle began Food for Schools when she realized that there was no existing coalition for all the backpack programs to meet. After attending a backpack summit in 2013, she started a backpack program called Backpack Brigade, which is now its own nonprofit. “The volunteers were like, ‘We can’t stop this momentum we have, and we are really passionate about this.’ So we started our own 501c3, which is Backpack Brigade.”
While Backpack Brigade is solely a backpack program, other programs are part of food banks like the one at FamilyWorks Food Bank (co-located with Solid Ground’s headquarters in Wallingford). Billy McLendon, FamilyWorks Food Bank Coordinator, says that they partner with three schools and distribute to over 70 students per week. Although the food that goes into the bags largely depends on what is available that week, he says, “We really try to stay consistent with trying to provide as many fruits or vegetables or a grain item, some dairy, some protein – just so we can provide a well-balanced bag for kids.”
Despite all the good work that backpack programs do for students every week, there is still stigma surrounding getting these backpacks and even getting free and reduced lunch. According to Nichelle, “It’s very much about how the schools handle the situation. It’s how they put a positive turn on it. It’s how the school is handling bullying and friendship, and the idea that we’re a school of positivity, and we take care of each other.”
One way that Backpack Brigade mitigates the stigma is by distributing the food “pantry style” from a nurse’s or counselor’s office at one of their partner high schools rather than directly in bags to the students. Ultimately, schools are seeing very positive impacts from these programs.
“What we’ve seen is a higher attendance, especially on Thursdays or Fridays depending on when distribution is. We’ve had quotes from teachers that the kids are more ready to learn on Mondays, and there is better attendance in the classroom on Mondays,” says Nichelle.
By helping kids deal with weekend hunger, backpack programs also help them succeed in school. Without the thought of being hungry looming over their heads, they are more able to focus on learning. It is Nichelle’s hope that one day her nonprofit and all backpack programs will no longer be needed as weekend hunger is completely eliminated.