Backpack program in St. Helens helps kids stay fed on weekends
A full tummy makes learning easier and more satisfying for school-age children.
That's the reasoning behind a decade-old program that provides weekend meals for students in the St. Helens School District.
The St. Helens School District Backpack Program, sponsored by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit partnership between the United Methodist Church of St. Helens and the Columbia Pacific Food Bank, is set up to provide a weekend food bag for students, which contains two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, two drinks, two snacks and two fruits.
The students are provided the meals on the last school day of each week beginning the first week of October and extending through the entire school year.
According to Judy Parmley, donation coordinator, the program is funded by individuals, local businesses, churches and civic groups. Volunteers pack the bags, order, shelve and deliver the food to the schools. Menus are based on healthful low sugar, low salt foods.
"This is our 10-year anniversary of this program; it started in 2012," Parmley said, noting that all schools in the school district are served and all students are eligible.
"At the height of our program, before COVID, we were serving 222 students," Parmley said, noting that the program survived through the pandemic, but students had to pick up the food at Lewis & Clark Elementary School.
"For that first year of COVID, we did it in the summer, also," Parmley added.
There are many food choices in each bag, including items such as oatmeal, cereal, shelf-stable milk, orange juice, Spaghetti-Os, chili, tuna fish, fruit snacks and peanut butter crackers.
Explaining the origins of the program, Parmley said, "This program was started by Kathy Barnett. She was a home economics teacher at the high school. She started this program because she saw a need for kids to have weekend food. A lot of them depended on breakfast and lunch at school. They didn't have much nutrition on the weekend."
The program started modestly, with 12 backpacks.
"Then it just grew from there," Parmley said. "As a former teacher, I can see that good nutrition really makes a difference in learning with kids … hopefully over the weekend, they have something so that when they do their homework, they can be thinking and making good choices."
Already, early in the school year, families are signing up for the program.
"We don't have all the registrations yet, but I know at one of the schools, just a couple of weeks ago, 58 families signed up, and that was the beginning of the sign up," Parmley said. "Hopefully it gets up there a ways, so we can serve more families."
Parmley said there are many people to thank for the ongoing backpack program.
"We would also like to thank all those who help, including the Lions Club, volunteers from United Methodist Church and those individuals who contribute as well," she said, noting thanks also go to NuStar Corp., which one year provided the backpack program with 3,000 jars of peanut butter.
For families interested in the program, Parmley suggests visiting the district's website at sthelens.k12.or.us or dropping by any of the schools and picking up a flyer in the office.
Parmley gets a great deal of satisfaction seeing the program work for students in the district.
"I've always been one that was raised by my parents, who were in the Peace Corps, and always served other people," she said. "My mom always said, 'Anytime you have a chance to do something for someone, do it.'"
Parmley, who once taught kindergarten and the first grade in Hillsboro, continued, "That's kind of how I feel about the Backpack Program. Now that I'm retired, I just feel fulfilled by helping other people."
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