Feeding our kids: Island programs are helping school district students

If it takes a village, as the African proverb suggests, to raise a child, then it stands to reason that feeding a child is also a community responsibility — one that several islanders have taken to heart in the development of several programs for students in the Vashon Island School District.

The issues of food insecurity and health are the focus of the Backpack Pantry program at Chautauqua and McMurray, the high school’s free Food Pantry and fresh-made meals, and the Land Trust’s farm-to-school initiative.

“You can’t teach a child who is hungry,” said islander Nancy Radford, who started the Backpack Pantry program three years ago. “That was something I learned while I was a teacher for 13 years.”

The program’s volunteers collect and then distribute food to students in need at Chautauqua Elementary School and new this year, McMurray Middle School. It gets its name from the mode of distribution: placement in the kids’ backpacks while the students are out of the classroom to avoid any discomfort or stigma that could be associated with receiving help.

Radford was inspired to start the program on a trip to Seaside, Oregon, three years ago.

“I went to church while I was there,” she explained, “and they were taking a collection for a local nonprofit — a school food program. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So when I got home, I started researching how many kids in our school district needed free or reduced-cost meals. And I found out that it was a lot of kids.”

Radford found a nonprofit to work under in Vashon’s St. John Vianney Catholic Church, but noted that the program itself is not church-related in any way other than that.

Students or family members sign up for the program with forms available at or through the school offices. Program volunteers deliver the food — which Radford says typically works out to two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners and snacks per week, per student — to the elementary school on Wednesdays and middle school on Thursdays throughout the school year. Extra food is often supplied before school breaks. Students with sensitivities or food allergies can participate, as long as the program receives all of the information it needs when the student is signed up to supply the appropriate items.

The program was initially just serving students at Chautauqua until the end of last year, when Radford said that she was contacted by McMurray principal Greg Allison, who felt that there was a need for it at the middle school as well. Currently, the program has 30 students signed up for this year between the two schools, with more likely to be added as paperwork is completed.

“We don’t promise food to anyone that we can’t afford to feed,” Radford added. “If we make a commitment, we follow through.”

Radford said that the program has seen growth since its beginnings and that the hardest part is reaching people.

“I know it takes more courage to ask for help than to go without,” she said. “I just hope that our kids grow up and remember that their community cared.”

As these issues aren’t exclusive to elementary and middle school students, the high school began its own food pantry program this past spring — though according to district Food Service Director Lisa Cyra, the distribution logistics for older kids is for more complicated, and likely causing students who could benefit from it not to take advantage.

“I have talked to Nancy (Radford) about the Backpack Pantry program, but it’s just not something we think would work at the high school level,” she said.

So VHS created its own “pantry,” as The Beachcomber reported in April, consisting of pre-filled grocery bags of food, that students can take freely as needed.

“We have a couple of regular users,” Cyra said. “But I believe there is a greater need than what we’re seeing. We need to look at distribution so that it’s accessible but maybe not so … noticeable.”

She added that she and school staff are brainstorming different possible strategies to see if they can make the program more user-friendly for teens.

In the meantime, Cyra and her staff are preparing for the first Family Feast of this school year on Thursday, Oct. 18. The district hosted three such feasts last year, where the community gathered to eat and celebrate together.

“Everyone is invited. We will be celebrating the farm-to-school idea,” she said. “And there will be a screening of a mini film about the district’s fresh food program.”

The film, “Food is Love,” was made by student Alia Payne and is focused on the district’s move to serving nothing but fresh, made-from-scratch food.

To that end, and crucial in the farm-to-school initiative, Cyra just made the district’s first purchase of fresh, locally grown produce from the Land Trust’s Matsuda Farm last week.

“The school district started this fresh food program, but no one on Vashon was growing for wholesale distribution,”Land Trust Executive Director Tom Dean said. “We thought it would be nice if we could do that, for the district as well as for other organizations.”

Adding that it has taken about three years to get going, Dean explained that the Land Trust is working Matsuda Farm for that very purpose.

“This year we had trial crops,” he said. “We donated to the food bank this summer, and we’re working with the senior center now too. So now the next three years will be to see if we can farm it without going out of business farming it. We need to gather data and continue working with the school district and other buyers to see how much of a local food economy we can grow.”

Dean was careful to point out that while Matsuda’s produce is being sold to the school district at wholesale prices, most island farmers simply can’t afford to do that, and that the Land Trust is trying not to compete directly with island farms where it can be avoided.

Backpack Pantry has donation jars at various businesses in town, and food donations can be made at St. John Vianney. Checks for monetary donations may be made out to St. John Vianney Church with Backpack Pantry program designated in the memo line. Donations to the high school’s food pantry program may be made at the VHS office. VISD’s free, fall Family Feast takes place from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, at Vashon High School.

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