The 10 women and two men who make up the staff and board of Food Backpacks 4 Kids have a vision for the Key Peninsula: to provide nutritious food for every child and adult in need.
Called Food 4 All, the project goal is to enable any interested person to learn about growing, cooking, storing and preserving food.
FB4K began at Evergreen Elementary School in 2009 when staff learned that some students were receiving their only meals of the day at school, meaning that on weekends there was no assurance they would get anything at all. They filled backpacks with food that could be taken home to provide some basic nutrition for hungry children.
Their work grew into a peninsula-wide effort and eventually a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in 2010. The program now fills 600 backpacks every month. In 2021, FB4K opened a permanent food pantry in Key Center that is open Wednesday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m.
FB4K receives 60% of its funding from local donors. The federal Emergency Food Assistance Program provides some funding, with smaller amounts coming from various county programs.
“I just updated our yearly filing with the State of Washington, and 92% of our expenditures went to our customers, with 8% covering our overhead,” said Executive Director Zaida Woodworth.
She proposed the Food 4 All program to the FB4K board at the beginning of 2023. After hearing from many people using the food pantry and the backpack program, it became apparent that the work needed to expand.
“The need for food assistance programs in Pierce County and beyond has consistently risen since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Woodworth said. “Need is outpacing assistance programs and will continue to do so.”
Four hundred families use the food pantry each month. Customers are looking for quality fruits and vegetables, and want to learn how to cook whatever is available. For example, Woodworth said many people do not know what to do with dry beans, an inexpensive food rich in protein.
“The overarching goal of Food 4 All is to build sustainability on multiple fronts,” she said. “By building a food hub that invites community participation, we are creating space for people to be involved, valued, and a part of something that benefits them directly.”
Food 4 All will also benefit local farmers. “We are launching our participation in the Washington State Department of Agriculture Farm 2 Food Panty program, which will allow local farms to get paid for the produce they provide to FB4K,” Woodworth said.
“This program marks the beginning of the FB4K acting as a catalyst for residents on the Key Peninsula to grow their own food and sell their produce to us.”
Some of the participants are Wildwood Hollow Farms, Creviston Valley Farm, and Key Peninsula Produce Express.
Sid Skievaski, of Creviston Valley Farm, is one of the partners of Food 4 All. A chance meeting at a local restaurant brought him into the orbit of these “dynamic women having a board meeting,” he said. That lively conversation began the relationship that is carrying the Food 4 All vision forward to the next stage of development.
Skievaski is rehabilitating the family farm that has seen some years of neglect. His mother, Lalaine Wong, was enthusiastic about the farm being part of the community.
“It has been my goal to get the place up and running,” he said. “There is no reason not to have it providing fruits and veggies for everyone.” Planning and planting are in the works for the early part of the new year. Repairs to the greenhouses are the priority. Microgreens planted in the early part of the year will be the first crop.
Food 4 All will also be opening a commercial community kitchen soon, according to Woodworth. A kitchen will allow nutrient-dense meals to be prepared and delivered to people who do not have kitchen facilities. Currently, the pantry is providing meals for two homeless teens and one disabled person and is delivering groceries to some clients who are unable to get to the pantry.
The licensed cooking facility would host cooking classes and teach people about food preservation of such items as soups and canned fruits and would be available for rental to businesses.
Volunteers are eager to begin assisting with the program.
Brenda Dahl is one of them. She and her family began using the FB4K program a few years ago during tough times. She continued to use the food pantry from time to time and became a volunteer.
“The staff are wonderful and try to make people feel welcome; they are treated like old friends,” she said, adding that some customers experienced stigma for using a food bank. “These are hard times right now for people on fixed incomes.”
Dahl is excited about the program to teach cooking skills. “Many people prefer convenience foods because they do not know how to cook from scratch,” she said. There are young parents in the community who would like to be more proactive but do not have the skills.
In a recent survey, some parents expressed the desire to be responsible for the food going to their homes, instead of having children bring it in a backpack. The adults are grateful but do not want their children to feel burdened with the responsibility of providing for the family. The Food 4 All concept would allow parents and families to take part in growing food and learning how to economically make use of it.
The vision of Food 4 All is a contrast to the current model of most food banks. Promoting and presenting interactive teaching, and meeting people where they are, has brought the FB4K program to the forefront of the nonprofit field. It was named Nonprofit of the Year by the Gig Harbor Chamber of Commerce in 2023. The goal of making food available to every person in need, reducing barriers to accessing food, and emphasizing nutrition and high-quality foods sets it apart. Creating locally sustainable systems of growing, selling, and distributing food not dependent solely on government programs and budgets is its paramount goal, according to Woodworth.
For more information, go to: www.foodbackpacks4kids.org.
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