Weekend food program for kids growing … like a weed

Scott Swanson

The KidsFoodPak program in Sweet Home is bigger this year than ever – which is both good and bad, organizers say.

“We’re now at 100 backpacks a week,” said Nancy Jennings, who founded the effort with her husband Dave in December 2009 after hearing about a similar program on the radio.

“We thought that would be really cool thing to get into for my husband and I,” Jennings said. “We looked in Sweet Home because we wanted to get involved. Then we thought maybe we would see if we could get something started.”

KidsFoodPak is a volunteer effort that provides backpacks of food to needy children on weekends, when school meals are not available. Recipients are children who school counselors and teachers identify as not getting adequate meals at home.

Jennings said students get backpacks containing two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and snacks on Fridays and return the backpacks on Tuesdays. The Jenningses and volunteers pick them up on Tuesday and refill them, then deliver them on Friday.

“We do it throughout the school year,” she said. “We don’t know the kids. It’s totally anonymous. For their privacy, none of the volunteers, David or I know who the families are at all.”

Referrals come from teachers and school counselors. Last year the program served students at three schools. This year it provides food to children at every school in the district.

“That’s really been good,” Jennings said.

After they heard about the program, the Jenningses designed a program based on one being conducted in Lincoln City.

“We copied the menu after theirs,” she said. It features staples such as ravioli, peanut butter and jelly, tuna fish, soups, fresh fruit, instant breakfast cereals – “Things kids can fix on their own. We try to make the backpacks light. We try to include milk when we can get it, but it’s expensive.”

When they were ready to go, Jennings said, they weren’t quite ready for the response.

“We were overwhelmed when we got hold of the DHS nurse, and she put us in touch with the counselor at Hawthorne, and he told us he could give us 50 names right then,” she said. “We just looked at each other. We had six people at that point ready to give.”

Other counselors told them they had children too. They were able to do three schools last year, but “this year other schools got organized.

“It seems like it started overnight,” she said. “Usually, every couple of weeks, one of counselors at a school will call us and say they can use another backpack. It’s sad but it’s good. It’s a lot for our community.”

Food for the program comes from donations made in barrels at LinnCo Federal Credit Union and Umpqua Bank and bins at Sweet Home Mennonite, First Baptist, St. Helen’s Catholic and Community Chapel churches. The program has received donations from the Elks Lodge and Rotary Club in Sweet Home, from Entek, and from County Food Share. Every two weeks someone drives to Corvallis to pick up donations of juices – Gatorade, Sobe Life Water and Lipton products from Pepsi.

“A lot of it is private people who give donations,” she said. “Or they’ll support kids for year. That’s been really awesome.”

It costs approximately $40 a month for one backpack, she said.

KidsFoodPak has been allowed use of three rooms in the basement of the Hope Center, where the food is stored and packed. She said people are welcome to visit on Tuesdays at noon to watch the bags being packed.

The Jenningses, who are “semi-retired,” have some 25 volunteers, ranging from young mothers to elderly people, who help out with the project – buying, stocking and packing the food. They can use more.

“We just see a huge need,” she said.

“I’m surprised by how many people are eager to help, even if it is just picking up food and delivering it,” she said. “It’s just awesome to see the community getting involved.”

For more information, call (541) 915-9727 or visit http://www.kidsfoodpak.com.