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Tutu’s Pantry and the Backpack Brigade help keep Capitol Hill school kids fed

Can by can, donations help Tutu’s Pantry keep kids fed (Image: CHS)

Hundreds of students at local schools don’t have reliable access to food, particularly on weekends, and a network of volunteer-run organizations has stepped in to assist them.

There are a number of programs in place to help students from lower income families get meals during school. Most common is the free and reduced meals program administered by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. The federal government helps provide funding that gives children from families below a certain income threshold (this year in Seattle, for a family of four, it is an annual income of less than $46,435 for reduced price meals and $32,630 for free meals) access to breakfast and lunch every school day. Across the district, 34% of students qualify for the program.

Then the weekend comes, and that assistance dries up.

So Seattle schools have developed a patchwork of parent-run groups to help fill the gap. Typically, the programs provide needy students with a backpack full of food on Friday to help get them through the weekend, though the specifics can vary greatly by school.

At Stevens Elementary, which serves children in North Capitol Hill, the program is known as Tutu’s Pantry.  Tutu’s Pantry provide backpacks on Fridays and larger boxes of food in advance of longer breaks. They also try to accommodate dietary restrictions.

It might be difficult to imagine that a school flanked by multi-million dollar homes has children in it who are food-insecure. “A lot of the families that we serve are struggling,” said Lori Bugaj, who runs Stevens’ program.

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Bugaj said the Stevens program typically serves 30-40 students per year, a little more than 10% of the student body.

“Statistically, I expect two kids per classroom,” Bugaj said.

The program there is a little more free-flowing. Sometimes, a family might suffer from a job loss and hit a tight spot for a month or two, entering the program, and then dropping out once they are more financially stable.

“At Stevens, if you say you need the help, we’re going to believe you,” she said.

At Lowell Elementary, Capitol Hill’s other public elementary school on E Mercer, the need is much greater. The program there serves almost 130 children, about one-third of the students said Suzanna Mak, who runs the program there.

Lowell’s program is heavily supported by the U-District Food Bank, Mak said. They, too provide backpacks which include food for three dinners, two lunches and two breakfasts, and ideally, a couple of snacks.

Mak said she uses donated food items to help supplement the nutritional density of the food she gets from the food bank.

A wider reaching, but more specific program is the Backpack Brigade. That group serves 800 students in a little more than 20 schools, almost all of them south of the Montlake Cut.

That program grew out of a similar weekend food program at Madrona, and has grown and expanded. They now operate out of a warehouse in the International District.

Missy Zumwalt, treasurer of the Backpack Brigade said her group would love to be able to help as many students as need it, but they have limited funding and focus on students in the greatest need. The provide backpack to students the district has identified as homeless under federal regulations set forth under the McKinney Vento act. Across the Seattle School District, there are 1,872 students (about 3.5% of the district’s enrollment) who meet the federal definition of homeless.

Zumwalt explained they provide each school with backpacks equal to the number of McKinney Vento students at the school, however, it is up to the school to decide who to give them to.

Because of the varied housing situations for the students Backpack Brigade serves, they’ve had to develop two kinds of packs, one for students who have access to some sort of kitchen facilities, and one for students who can’t access a kitchen. Beyond that, she said they don’t have the resources to be able to offer bags that are more culturally sensitive, or which might be able t accommodate a student’s allergies.

“Ideally, we would be able to get to that point,” Zumwalt said.

How you can help
The different food programs have different needs. All of them can use money. Sometimes, by buying in bulk, food programs can get better deals than an average person. Additionally, the program can have the flexibility to purchase whatever foods they might need at a given time.

  • Most of the programs also accept donations of food, with some caveats.
  • Consider you are donating food to a person who needs it and needs things with nutritional value. This isn’t an opportunity to feel good about yourself for handing over a jar of sauerkraut that was going to expire in a week or that cake mix you never got around to baking.
  • Most of the organizations can’t get much use out of bulk foods – they don’t have the time or resources to separate it out into individual servings.
  • Some food will be given to students who do not have access to kitchen facilities.
  • Glass containers are frowned upon. Backpacks can be thrown around a bit, and glass can break.
  • Keeping those things in mind, donations of individual serving foods in cans and boxes are best. Items like canned soups, stews and entrees, microwaveable rice, boxed macaroni and cheese, beans and nuts are good options.

For more information or to donate, follow the links to the program at Stevens (financial donations can be made at the bottom of the page here), Lowell and via Backpack Brigade.

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