Published on May 3rd, 2013 | by Sarah Beth Smith


Feeding the Heart of Tacoma

We have so many reasons to celebrate our city: it’s full of wonderful parks and amenities, a lively and creative art scene, caring and proud citizens. I see a show of support for our community everywhere I look, from bumper stickers on cars, to guerrilla art gracing telephone poles and abandoned buildings. Collectively we demand our city to face the fact that despite it’s flaws, it’s incredibly beautiful.

Nevertheless, some issues are more than mere flaws. Hunger is a very ugly, very real issue for many families here in Tacoma. Instances of hunger have increased dramatically in the last few years – the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that from 2008 to the end of 2011, the number of hungry families in Washington grew from about 88,000 to 163,000. Tacoma families are sometimes forced to choose between food and rent. Some families are homeless and struggling to have even their most basic needs met.

Hunger is a problem many of Tacoma’s children face on a daily basis. It blows me away that in this day and age, there are kids who won’t get to eat dinner tonight – kids who worry about their day-to-day food situation more than about learning to tie their shoes or multiply by fours.

Last year I watched a documentary on childhood hunger in America, and was deeply struck by the young kids featured who worried about food. Kids went hungry at night and on weekends. They cried and felt helpless. It was troubling to watch, to say the least.

After viewing the film, I spent time learning about families in Washington State and Pierce County who are food insecure – unsure if they can put food on the table each night. The Children’s Alliance estimates that 440,000 children in Washington (25 percent), live in households where there’s not enough food to eat.

backpack program

As a parent, it got me thinking of the kids in my third grader’s class who might be worrying and wondering when things would get easier for their families. How could these kids possibly be expected to reach their potential and perform well in school, when they can’t even get a good night’s sleep because they are worried, or because their tummies are hungry?

I wondered about our community – what were we doing to help?

I ended up at a local food bank called The Food Connection last spring, in an old and very chilly chapel on Yakima Street. I was greeted by a young, friendly fellow named James who welcomed me and put me to work straight away preparing food for Tacoma area kids in the Backpack Program.

The Backpack Program is designed to meet the basic nutritional needs of children by providing them with two days worth of food each weekend. These meals are kid-friendly, meaning they are tasty as well as nutritious. A backpack consists of items like instant oatmeal, potatoes, fresh fruits and veggies, granola bars, juice, heat and serve pasta – things that kids can easily prepare themselves.

Backpack Barrels

Photo courtesy of Shawn H. Smith.

James, like all the Backpack Program volunteers I met, was optimistic and cheerful about the efforts in place to help these kids. I marveled at this person so full of hope and positive energy.

The Backpack Program has grown rapidly in the last few years. In a recent press release, the Food Connection announced the expansion of their Backpack Program to serve 550 kids at risk for hunger in nearly 20 Tacoma public schools on a weekly basis throughout the year.

The idea is that when kids basic needs are met, they’ll have a greater chance for success at school. The press release goes on to quote a teacher at Sheridan Elementary, who witnessed the “change in students’ emotional outlook and academic abilities.” Not only will these kids do better in school, but their lives will be less stressful, and they’re happier.

Photo courtesy of Shawn H. Smith.

Photo courtesy of Shawn H. Smith.

The Food Connection is just one organization successfully helping children here in Tacoma. They’re not alone in their endeavor – other schools and organizations in our town as well as across the nation have employed the backpack model successfully through private funding and efforts of parent volunteers.

I had been looking for a way to support my kid’s own school better, so I approached Kevin Glackin-Coley, the Food Connection’s Director, about serving our school using the backpack model. We came up with the idea of fundraising independently and channeling funds through the Backpack Program specifically for our school, so we could take part in their bulk food buying and volunteer packing efforts at a cost of about $6 per kid per week.

With enthusiastic support of our school counselor, and the scraped together donations and efforts of a few generous parents at the school, we started delivering backpacks each weekend to fifteen kids. Every Friday, three boxes of food are brought to the office and discreetly distributed.

It feels great knowing these fifteen kids can now worry a little less. Like James in the chilly chapel, I too am all at once filled with hope and optimism that I am part of an effort to make this world, and my city in particular, a better place, even if it’s on a very small level.

Backpack Program Peanut Butter

Photo courtesy of Shawn H. Smith.

Sometimes it feels like the problem is too big to make a difference. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what we can do to help. But there are many effective ways to help – the Backpack Program is just one really great example.

Dear, Tacoma. We are willing, we are able, and it’s time to do a little something more. Tacoma’s children are the heart of our city and they need our support. I write this in the hope that you will see an opportunity – a way to help something be restored and made beautiful in our city once again. Let’s raise up a generation of citizens who feel loved and cared for, and who can carry on a legacy of caring for our community for years to come.

Here are just a few ways to help:


To the Backpack Program at The Food Connection. At $6 per kid per weekend, you can sponsor a child for around $30 a month.


Go see “A Place At The Table,” a documentary about hunger in the United States, playing at The Grand Cinema May 3-9. A post-film discussion with Helen McGovern, executive director of The Emergency Food Network, will be held Sunday, May 5 following the 4:20 p.m. showing.

Get involved:

Volunteer at The Food Connection. The Backpack Program needs help with packing and delivering food each week, but there are many ways to help. Learn more here.

On Saturday, June 22, attend Wheels to Meals, the 8th Annual bike ride fundraiser through the Puyallup Valley and surrounding areas to support the St. Leo Food Connection. Find more info here.

Start a food drive, fundraiser or backpack program with your school, church, or community group. You don’t need a background in nonprofit fundraising to make a difference. Collecting and distributing food to help hungry families can start with a conversation with your school’s counselor. Brainstorm ideas to see what the best way is to help.

Here is a great article from Second Harvest on starting a backpack program.

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One Response to Feeding the Heart of Tacoma

  1. Emily says:

    Another great way to help out is to check out the Pierce County Gleaning Project. This organization gleans unwanted produce from farms and neighborhood fruit trees and donates it to food banks like St Leo’s. It’s a fun way to get outside and help feed people.

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