Ethan McCanta runs backpack food program to help feed younger kids
by: Jonathan House, At William Walker Elementary School, Ethan McCanta takes donated food and puts it into backpacks that less-fortunate students will take home with them the next school day.

Ethan McCanta has become a champion for younger students at William Walker Elementary School.

The Rachel Carson Environmental Middle School eighth-grader has also inspired members of Cedar Hills United Church of Christ and his Bethany neighborhood to join an effort to tackle food insecurity.

Since January, the 14-year-old has led an ambitious food backpack program, delivering 22 meals of donated food to William Walker to send home with students every weekend.

'Ethan is an incredible young man,' said Sheryl Lindenberg, a counselor at William Walker who identified 11 families in need of food support. 'It's just amazing what he has been able to accomplish.'

Consuelo Rios, the school's social support specialist, looks forward to Ethan's weekly Wednesday delivery of carefully packed bags of tuna fish, peanut butter crackers, fruit cups, applesauce, pudding, granola bars, fruit roll-ups and juice.

'The parents are so grateful, and the kids look forward to coming in to pick up their backpack of food to take home,' Rios said. 'The kids are so proud to know that they are doing their part to help their family.'

Though Ethan has never met any of the students he has helped, their families know him.

'My family is going through a difficult time, and I don't have a lot of money for food,' one parent said. 'I am very thankful for the backpack with food. My children love the special snacks.'

Another mother praised Ethan's effort.

'I think this is awesome for an eighth-grader to organize, set it up and put this whole thing together,' the mother said.  'I think it's great. I teach my kids to do things like this. It is nice to see that other parents are doing the same thing.'

Call to service

Ethan wholeheartedly embraced his eighth-grade project.

When his humanities teacher Kendall Gibson challenged the class to dream up a community service project to initiate, manage and reflect on, Ethan knew he wanted to tackle food insecurity.

'We had read an article about the high number of homeless and hungry students in the Beaverton School District in one of my classes, and I was very surprised to hear that,' Ethan said. 'You see adults who are homeless, but you never see kids.'

As of May 1, the district had served 1,698 homeless children and teens enrolled in Beaverton schools, according to Lisa Mentesana, Title X social support program specialist. Of those, 630 students are in pre-kindergarten through fifth grades.

William Walker Elementary School is one of the many Beaverton schools with a large number of students who qualify for free and reduced meals.

'I knew William Walker was in desperate need of support because my church has done clothing drives and adopted families around the holidays,' Ethan said. 'I thought I could join in and help with things at the school.'

To get a feel of what a weekend backpack program might look like, Ethan and his family went with a neighbor to her church to see how its food pantry ran a program with other Beaverton schools.

'They showed us around and were very helpful in showing us what they do and items they include,' said Marianne McCanta, Ethan's mom.

With an idea of what he might be in for, Ethan set up a meeting with William Walker Principal Joann Hulquist to pitch the idea.

'She said, 'Yes, please come and do this. I could give you 400 names of students who would benefit,'' Ethan recalled.

Because Ethan planned to store donated items and run the program out of the garage of his family's home on Northwest Tucson Street, the McCanta family offered to start with providing food for 10 children every other week.

As part of the effort, Ethan made an announcement at his church, asking the congregation to donate a list of food items. He also set up a collection bin on his porch for friends and neighbors to donate items. The response was swift and fruitful, as people rallied to support Ethan's project.

As donations piled in, Ethan added another student to his list, and after spring break started making deliveries of 22 bags of food every week.

School staff then place two of the bags in a backpack for a student to pick up on Thursday or Friday to take home. That student then returns the empty backpack to the school on Monday.

'It's just like clockwork,' Lindenberg said. 'The process has been so easy, and the kids do get very excited. It's also making them very responsible to return their backpack every Monday.

'We can't tell you enough how impressed we are with Ethan. This young man, he just does it. He had a vision, figured out how to do it and just gets it done.'

Ethan takes pride in knowing he is helping other children.

'It has been a very, very good experience,' he said. 'It makes me feel good knowing I'm doing something to help.

'I like to help people. It just feels natural for me.'

He also appreciates the support he has received from the community.

'I've learned that there are a lot of people who are willing to help if you just tell them how,' Ethan said.

'People have been very generous with their donations,' Marianne McCanta added. 'It's been remarkable to see so many people who really want to help. That's what really touched me.'

The Beaverton School Board honored Ethan for his project at its May 7 meeting. He and other Rachel Carson eighth-graders will present their projects during an exhibition night June 7.

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