When Sharon Lowe buys groceries, she buys groceries — we’re talking cases of ramen, cartons of Vienna sausages and mac-and-cheese by the shipping palette.
“My cart definitely doesn’t look like everybody else’s,” she said. “But that’s feeding our kids.”
Of course, by “our kids” Lowe isn’t referring to her own family. Rather, she means the approximately 470 elementary and middle school-aged children currently served by feeding Juneau’s backpack lunch program.
In Juneau, like many public school systems across the country, a considerable number of households face food insecurity issues. As a result, numerous students receive free and/or reduced-price meals through both local and national school breakfast and lunch programs (including the United Way of Southeast Alaska’s universal breakfast program).
For many, these may be their only meals during the week. But what happens to these children over the weekend?
“It’s not just that they don’t get enough to eat at home,” said Lowe. “Some kids don’t get anything.”
Enter the backpack lunch program.
“We provide food for these students specifically when they don’t have access to school breakfast and lunch,” she said.
This not only includes weekends, but also every school closure except winter recess and spring break (although Foodland IGA provides family boxes for those weeks) as well as Thanksgiving, during which various community groups run food drives.
Here’s how the backpack lunch program works:
Every Friday, participants from all elementary and middle schools in the district — except Auke Bay, but including Montessori Borealis and Juneau Community Charter School — receive a bag through their school counselor’s office. Each contains two breakfasts, two lunches and two snacks, consisting of shelf-stable, single-serving items easy enough for a four-year-old to prepare, such as fruit cups, nuts, crackers and granola bars.
“And oatmeal — our kids absolutely love oatmeal!” said Lowe.
“It may not sound like that much,” she continued, “but for a family forced to choose between food and rent, each bag represents a huge contribution.”
The backpack lunch program also represents a focused effort by a variety of local organizations and community members.
Originally, the idea grew out of conversations among the Juneau Food Coalition, coordinated by the United Way of Southeast Alaska, and built on the foundations of long-running school breakfast programs run by Aldersgate Church and Douglas Community United Methodist Church at Glacier Valley Elementary School — Sít’ Eetí Shaanáx and Sayéik: Gastineau Community School, respectively. Both churches remain integral team members.
Financially, the program receives support from the City and Borough of Juneau Social Services, and through both the Juneau Community Foundation and the Benito and Frances C. Gaguine Foundation, in addition to donations from the general public. The weekend food bags are all packed and distributed by volunteer sponsors, one per school.
Sponsors include the Methodist Church and Aldersgate Church, as well as Northern Light Church, the Juneau Douglas High School boys soccer team and the Thunder Mountain High School transition team. Two local families also sponsor schools.
“This program requires massive teamwork,” said Lowe. “Everybody involved really goes beyond themselves to make it work.”
In fact, in addition to her role as the program’s grant administrator — not to mention designated shopper — she, herself, delivers bags to Sayéik: Gastineau.
Naturally, like most community service initiatives, the backpack lunch program not just survives, but thrives, on the contribution of volunteers.
“If we didn’t have our volunteers, we wouldn’t have the program, and these kids wouldn’t have breakfast, lunch and snacks on the weekend,” she said.
Lowe also acknowledges Juneau’s supermarkets and grocery stores, especially Costco, whose employees make sure she’s aware of available discounts and specials, and have, on occasion, special ordered soon-to-be-discontinued items for stockpiling.
“When you’re feeding almost 500 kids, every little bit of savings adds up,” said Lowe.
She also credits the United Way of Southeast Alaska, not only for working to ensure food security in general, but also including the backpack lunch program in its other initiatives as possible, for example, the Day of Caring. Plus, the United Way donates plenty of recycled shopping bags.
“And I’m always looking for bags,” she said.
Of course, the backpack lunch program is always looking for monetary and food donations, as well as volunteers. Lowe strongly encourages anyone interested to contact her via the Douglas Community Methodist Church at (907)364-2408.
“I love making sure kids are okay,” said Lowe. “And I know I’m not the only one in Juneau who feels that way.”
In the words of one fifth-grade program participant: “I’m glad they’re putting food in bags; they’re kind people for doing it. They should get some kind of kindness award!”
• This column appears courtesy of United Way of Southeast Alaska as part of a project highlighting community volunteer efforts. To learn more about “Living United”, the United Way of Southeast Alaska or any of its partner agencies, visit www.unitedwayseak.org.