In some communities, one in two children don’t know where their next meal will come from. Families get help from food banks, and depend on school meal programs to meet their kids’ nutritional needs. Unfortunately, those programs only operate during the school week, which means from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, kids often go hungry. That’s where Backpack Buddies comes in.
Every Friday, the organization’s drivers and volunteers visit partner schools and discreetly hand out bags with enough nutritious, ready-to-eat food to keep kids fed through the weekend.
Though simple, a backpack of food has a big impact on little lives, says co-founder Emily-anne King. She recalls talking to a little girl one Friday while handing out the weekend’s bags. She asked the girl if she liked Backpack Buddies. She responded that she loved it, and Emily-anne asked why.
The girl told her that before Backpack Buddies started coming to her school, there were times when all she had all weekend was water.
That this kind of deprivation exists would shock some. Sadly, it’s not uncommon. Over 163,000 children in the BC experience food security. With 20% of children living below the poverty line, BC has one of the highest child poverty rates in Canada. When basic needs like food, shelter and warmth directly compete with each other, parents are often forced to make impossible choices: do we pay the rent or eat dinner? Do I heat our home, or make sure I have a way to get to work?
And the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the crisis. In March 2020, Backpack Buddies distributed 1,300 kits per week. By June, they were handing out over 3,000. For a small organization, this increase in demand was challenging on its own—but was compounded by the fact that kids were no longer in school, requiring them to completely pivot their delivery model.
Emily-anne says, “It was a matter of ‘take everything you know—our supply chain, our base of volunteers who keep things running, all of it—and throw it out the window. But do the same thing, on a far greater scale, and do it immediately.’ That’s what we were up against.”
With additional support from donors and Power to Give, and assistance from their volunteers provincewide, Backpack Buddies pulled it off. The 49,000 bags of food delivered in 2019/2020 helped keep kids—and their parents—from going hungry. Parents of program participants have reported that their kids’ kits allow them to eat, since they would otherwise forgo food to ensure their families were fed.
The impact on kids’ health and wellbeing is significant. Kids who come to class hungry can lose up to two hours of productivity per school day. They’re more likely to be in poor health, to have to repeat a grade, to exhibit behavioural problems or psychosocial deficits, and to suffer from anxiety and depression. Consistent hunger—even just a couple of days a week—can set a child back for life. So Backpack Buddies’ work has a profound impact on the lives of kids, and ripple effects within their families and communities.
“Unfortunately, what we do isn’t solving the problem,” says Emily-anne. “We’re not changing the system yet. Until we can get to that, we just have to take care of these kids.”