Assuming that exercising your mind keeps it sharp, here’s a riddle for you: What Seattle food vendor feeds 872 customers seven meals weekly, 38 weeks a year, yet has neither an address for Yelp critics to pinpoint nor menus to choose from – and also doesn’t charge for its services or expect to be tipped?
The answer is Backpack Brigade, which since 2014 has been distributing weekend food supplies to homeless and displaced Seattle schoolchildren who might otherwise go hungry. And though the grunt work of filling nearly 900 white plastic bags with Cup of Noodles, rice and beans, and oatmeal is done by a small army of volunteers, the heart and brains of the operation is Executive Director, Nichelle Hilton.
While attending training on how to run a food bank, Nichelle learned that hundreds of Seattle schoolchildren were at risk of going unfed over the weekends, when their challenging home situation might fail to provide the nutrition they got during the week at school. “How could we let this happen?” she remembers thinking.
For this woman who has worked in nonprofits since she was 18, the response was to put food into the hands of the hungry children. Beginning with eight bags in 2014, Backpack Brigade distributes packages of seven meals – three dinners, two lunches, two breakfasts, and snacks – to K-8 schoolchildren at the end of the school day on Fridays. High schoolers, if identified as in need by a nurse or counselor, may be discreetly offered an inconspicuous box of food to take home.
This gets done on a yearly budget of $200,000 – which, as Nichelle points out, “someone could sneeze that, in this city.”
What makes such a low-cost operation possible – each bag of food for a hungry child costs less than eight dollars – are the more-than-50 volunteers who weekly work in the program’s small warehouse not far from CenturyLink Field to fill the white plastic bags with food and get them to the children.
Wednesday, between eight and 10 volunteers show up to begin setting up the bags, which includes doing inventory and fluffing open the bags that then go in bunches of eight into blue plastic crates on the room’s 17 tables. Many of these volunteers are regulars. Thursday, when the preparation includes bagging small amounts of rice and beans and assembling the meal bags, is a popular day for work groups such as Microsoft and other tech companies, church groups, and even book clubs.
“Just to get the count from the storage to the tables, that’s too much to do in one day,” notes Nichelle.
“Here, the bags you touch now will be in a child’s hands tomorrow.” ~Nichelle Hilton
Friday, when the food bags are delivered to some 20 schools, is the busiest day requiring the most volunteers, about 25 people, including 16–18 drivers. The biggest delivery is 19 heavy crates, which both the vehicle and the driver must be able to carry – not to mention the little 5-year-old kindergartener girl who has to lug it home.
At the end of the day, “We sweep and push all the tables into the middle, and then all those volunteers take off,” says Nichelle. “I wait for all the drivers to come back and push all those crates into the middle, and that’s that.”
She impishly adds, “There’s a funny little competition between Friday and Wednesday: If anything goes wrong on Friday, it is Wednesday’s fault, and when Wednesday gets here and there is a mess, it’s Friday’s fault!”
Backpack Brigade is looking at providing its services to the Seattle schools that offer six weeks of summer classes to fill the gap for children who can’t make it to a Summer Meals site around the city. As Nichelle explains, “We partner with a lot of schools, a lot of the parks, and then the school districts have referrals of all the different parks and food banks. And some are even at shelter sites that host summer meal programs – which is free lunch, every day, for anyone under 18, no questions asked.” It is all about filling those gaps.
Not surprisingly, “We always need money, food, and volunteers,” Nichelle says. “With everything we do, there’s not much overhead. I just need one champion; I just need one Seahawks player to come and champion our cause.”
In the meantime, the Backpack Brigade warehouse is an excellent place to meet other concerned Seattleites and gain the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done something tangible to put food in a hungry child’s mouth.
As Nichelle puts it, “Here, the bags you touch now will be in a child’s hands tomorrow.”