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Operation Backpack will benefit Deer Creek students

The Highlands starts food drive for hungry elementary school kids
by: Barbara Sherman HELPFUL NEIGHBORS — At a meeting at the Highlands Clubhouse, Janet Huber shows examples of food products to be sent home in students’ backpacks for the weekend while her husband Mike looks on.

Deer Creek Elementary could not have been built in a better location: It is located in King City right across 131st Avenue from the Highlands, where the residents have informally adopted the students and organized programs to benefit them.

Highlands residents already are donating nutrition bars for students to receive along with free books through a summer bookmobile program, and now they have started Operation Backpack to provide non-perishable food to underprivileged students to take home in backpacks on Fridays.

Through this program, the students will have enough food to eat on the weekends when they do not have access to the federally subsidized meals they get at school on the weekdays.

Phyllis Gagnier decided to take on organizing the backpack project after hearing about a program already in existence called Take Action Inc. that is based at Mountain Park Church in Lake Oswego and supports several schools in the Portland area.

Take Action Inc. organizers Mike and Janet Huber came to the Highlands Clubhouse on July 13 to explain how the program works and brought samples of the different food items that work well in the program.

"We became aware of the terrible situation at a school in North Portland, where kids would hoard food on Friday and come to school ravenous on Monday," Mike said. "We were asked to gather food for one elementary school and started collecting enough food for 25 kids. We figured other schools had a need too, and we talked to principals who welcomed our help. By the end of the school year, we were supporting 170 children.

"It is amazing how bad the situation is. We found lots of different partners to help gather food and funds, and we feel confident we can take care of five schools. We hope to raise the number of students we serve to 250 next year."

Mike explained that not being able to count on having enough food is called "food insecurity," and the child food insecurity rate in Oregon is 20.8 percent, according to www.feedingamerica.org.

"We take four to six weeks worth of food each time we visit a school, and people at the school decide how many and which families will be served," Mike said. "They know the families - how many children, their ethnicity and food preferences, and they fill the backpacks each week."

Janet said that the first step in the program is actually to build a relationship with the school.

"You have already done that with Deer Creek with the snack bars that go with the books," she said, adding that the backpacks don't include food for older children or parents in the families.

"The second step is to determine the exact needs, and the third step is to decide as a group what you are going to do," Janet said. "The next step is a food drive. What we have discovered is that if you can augment your donation base outside your community, it will be more successful.'

She held up examples of good food choices for kids - cans and boxes that kids can open themselves if an adult is not home, small boxes of cereal and packets of oatmeal.

Other popular items are cans of soup, tuna fish, other canned meat, fruits and vegetables, macaroni and cheese, snack bars, peanut butter and jelly, stew, beans with tomato sauce, non-perishable milk and staples like beans and rice.

"You can buy some items in bulk and divide them up," Janet said. "Delivering the food is the best part of the process. It is just delightful to go to the schools and see the kids. You will receive a warm welcome.

"The backpacks filled with food are delivered to the classrooms on Fridays. Some kids have their backpacks for books on their back and the food backpacks in front - we call them turtles. The teachers like this program because it makes the kids responsible - if they don't bring the backpacks back, no food is sent home the next week. They have had 100 percent compliance."

According to Janet, the volunteers who supply the food get as much or more from the program as the kids do.

Following the presentation by the Hubers, Gagnier said, "It's important that the kids know someone cares. The kids are so happy to get the energy bars with the books. I just can't see a child going hungry."

Mike added, "It has made us feel good to know that kids have food for the weekend. Whatever you end up doing, it will be appreciated."

People who live in the greater Tigard area are encouraged to drop off food donations at the Highlands Clubhouse, 12930 S.W. Peachvale St., which is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The Highlands project is temporarily under the umbrella of Mountain Park Church, which is affiliated with the Oregon Food Bank. People also may mail checks made out to Mountain Park Church to the Highlands Clubhouse address, which is in the 97224 ZIP code.