A Humboldt County program that provides low-income children with extra food to help keep them sustained over weekends continues to grow this year.

The “Backpacks for Kids” program, which gives the students a bag of kid-friendly, nutritious food on Fridays during the school year, began in Humboldt County in the fall of 2006 at three schools: Alice Birney Elementary School, Trinity Valley Elementary School and South Fortuna Elementary School.

”It served 110 children that year,” said Anne Holcomb, executive director of the nonprofit Food for People, which runs the program.

The number of children a school may accommodate is based on the amount of funding they receive, Holcomb said. This past school year, the program served 408 children at 17 schools in the area. This year, there are 23 schools using the program, with 404 students currently enrolled. This number is expected to go up to 460 children within the next couple of weeks.

”This is because we received word that some of the schools already using the program got additional funding,” Holcomb said. “And there are two new schools in Fortuna able to use the program this year, again thanks to additional funding they received.”

The program, first sponsored by Feeding America, which continues to offer support, has expanded partnerships with local funders. That includes grant support from local rotary clubs, such as Eureka Rotary Club, and individual donors in the community, Holcomb said.

”The food is able to be prepared by the kids themselves,” Holcomb said. “There are items such as instant oatmeal, cereal, canned tuna and soup, macaroni and cheese, soy milk and a loaf of bread. Whenever possible there's fresh fruit, such as apples and oranges. Sometimes there's even a bag of potatoes.”

The amount of food provided in each bag is enough for breakfast, lunch and dinner for Saturday and Sunday, including a few snacks such as granola bars, Holcomb said.

The bags always include recipes, which Holcomb said are a big hit.

”There's always some information on how to apply for the CalFresh program or other ideas for resources, including information about local pantry sites,” she said.

Georgeanne Fulstone-Pucillo, the principal at Alice Birney Elementary School for six years, said Backpacks for Kids is one of the schools favorite programs.

”It's a win, win, win for everyone involved,” Fulstone-Pucillo said.

Alice Birney Elementary School refers to the program as the “Backpack Club,” so kids involved don't feel embarrassed and there's no stigma, Fulstone-Pucillo said.

”We explain to them in the beginning of the year to not give away their food,” Fulstone-Pucillo said. “Because some want to share with their friends on the bus.”

Fulstone-Pucillo said students with limited food access can face a long, hungry time between when they leave school Friday at 2:30 p.m. and when they return Monday morning.

”Some of our families live in motel rooms and only have a hot plate to use,” Fulstone-Pucillo said. “The consistency is the most exciting part of the program. It's food families can count on. At the end of the week, money can be spread pretty thin at some houses.”

A local woman, whose son has been involved with the program at Alice Birney Elementary School since last year, said it's been a huge help.

”Especially toward the end of the month, we don't have many snack items,” she said. “My son benefits from the program so much and gets so excited whenever he comes home on Fridays. He says, 'Look what I got today! Can I have this right now?'”

John Bradley, a volunteer for the program and Eureka Rotary Club member, was honored as a “Champion of Youth” by the Boys and Girls Club of the Redwoods in September for his support of numerous youth programs throughout the area, most notably Backpacks for Kids.

”It was a surprise honor,” Bradley said. “Obviously, the recognition is not just about my effort. It reflects greatly on the effort of all the volunteers and leadership of Food for People.”

Holcomb said she has six grandchildren in the area and can't imagine what it would be like to tell them they can't eat on the weekends. 

”I've heard so many heartbreaking stories,” Holcomb said. “This program really helps assure the kids involved that their surrounding community really wants to help take care of them.”

At a glance: Backpacks for Kids

One child can receive a bag of food every Friday for the year through a donation of $250, which includes administrative fees.

To learn more about the Backpacks for Kids program, visit foodforpeople.org/programs/backpacks-kids

For more information about donating to Food for People, visit foodforpeople.org/donate

Source: Food for People

Jillian Singh is a reporter at Times-Standard and can be reached at (707) 441-0509 or Jsingh@times-standard.com