Now more than ever, Homeless Backpacks is committed to helping students in need throughout the South Sound. Filling nutritional gaps that school-based food programs may not cover, Homeless Backpacks works to ensure that homeless students don’t go hungry during weekends, breaks or school closures. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Homeless Backpacks has continued to work around the clock to provide additional meals to students, even as schools have closed for the remainder of the school year.

Through providing food to students in need, the Homeless Backpacks mission is to ease the burden on homeless youth. If students have basic needs met, like food to eat, then they have more opportunity to focus on their education. When school is in session, Homeless Backpacks works with school counselors throughout Thurston County to deliver bags of food that students can take home for the weekend. During this time, the number of students in need of a weekend food bag is increasing. Through coordination with schools, and a team of volunteers who source, sort, package and deliver bags of food to schools, Homeless Backpacks is working to meet that demand.

The food items Homeless Backpacks provides in weekend food bags are generally shelf-stable and easy to prepare, including snack items like granola bars, oatmeal and fruit cups. Kelly Wilson, founder and board member of Homeless Backpacks says the food items that are currently in high demand are canned chili, pasta, tuna and soup, shelf stable milk, ramen noodles (like Top Ramen), Easy Mac, applesauce, fruit cups, single serve packages of peanut butter and other single-serve snacks.

The food items provided in weekend food bags are generally shelf-stable and easy to prepare, including ramen noodles, granola bars, oatmeal and fruit cups. Photo credit: Molly Walsh

As in-person schooling is no longer in session, Homeless Backpacks is adapting to a new normal of creative food shopping and serving more students than ever before. According to Wilson, the organization distributed about 600 bags of food each week before schools were closed. As of April, Homeless Backpacks is now distributing 2,500 bags of food each week. Weekend food bags are delivered to participating schools on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Bags are distributed to students each Friday at the same sites that local school districts dispense school-sponsored lunches and breakfasts.

Wilson says that sourcing food has become an increasing challenge, both due to increased demand and to the limited stock of nonperishable foods available at grocery stores. Over the past few weeks, Wilson and the Homeless Backpacks volunteer team have had to completely pivot on how they gather necessary food items.

“Before the COVID-19 school closures, our shopping coordinator would assign one or two food items to each shopper and they would purchase 500 to 600 pieces of that item,” explains Wilson. “Now that shelf stable food has become so scarce, the shopping coordinator now sends out the entire shopping list to the entire team asking them to get whatever they can from the list and to keep her updated on what they are able to purchase.”

As in-person schooling is no longer in session, Homeless Backpacks is adapting to a new normal of creative food shopping and serving more students than ever before. Photo courtesy: Homeless Backpacks

This new way of shopping means each member of the volunteer shopper team needs to make numerous trips to numerous grocery stores just to come up with enough food to fill the bags. Since lower-priced items are quickly being purchased from store shelves, Homeless Backpacks is also having to pay higher prices for each food item.

Despite these challenges, Homeless Backpacks has forged on while also having to adapt their food bag assembly process. Prior to the enactment of social distancing measures, Wilson says the Homeless Backpacks work party calendar was filled with groups ready to source and pack different components of the weekend food bag.

As Washington State residents were encouraged to stay home and practice physical distancing, Homeless Backpacks had to change the structure of their work parties. A majority of Homeless Backpacks’ regular volunteer base is of retirement age and are attempting to stay healthy through social distancing practices and that has meant a new crop of volunteers has had to step forward to continue operations. Now, Homeless Backpacks is working with multiple smaller groups of volunteers throughout the week to prepare weekend food bags.

“It has been the most beautiful thing,” says Wilson. “Because we are working in smaller groups, I have the opportunity to get to know these new volunteers. Homeless Backpacks is very loved and supported in the hands of these strong, brilliant and kind humans. Local businesses, individuals and service organizations have been checking in to see how they can help. Every one of these conversations, emails and donations are ensuring the sustainability of this new model of service. And personally, provide me with the strength and confidence that I need to keep moving forward in these very scary times. The grace and caring nature of our community is truly shining.”

During this time, Homeless Backpacks is working with multiple smaller, more spaced out volunteer groups throughout the week to prepare food bags. Photo courtesy: Homeless Backpacks

As the summer months grow nearer, Homeless Backpacks will continue to provide weekend food to students in need throughout Thurston County. Even as demand for weekend food bags continue to increase, Wilson is hopeful that food sourcing will grow easier and Homeless Backpacks can continue its mission through the support of the community.

As Homeless Backpacks serves homeless students during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, community donations can make a significant difference to help keep the program going. Momentary donations can be made online or mailed to the Homeless Backpacks post office box. Food items can also be donated directly to Homeless Backpacks. To coordinate a food donation, contact Homeless Backpacks via phone, email, or Facebook message. To learn more about the Homeless Backpacks mission or for more information about donations, visit the Homeless Backpacks website.

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