Backpacks Are For More Than Just Carrying Books (by Estelle Norris)


Estelle1Food insecurity is a real problem that affects millions of American families each year. The USDA says food insecurity means, “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year”. According to the USDA’s 2014 report, 15% of all families in Oregon are food insecure.

As a child, I experienced food insecurity. My mom was a single parent and often did not have enough money to pay the bills and buy enough food for the month. Despite that fact, since we were not considered poor according to the federal poverty guidelines, my mother could not get assistance for our food needs. Because of the lack of help available to her, there were many times that we did not have anything to eat. On several occasions, we received eviction notices because she chose to buy food instead of paying the rent. She provided for us the best she knew how. We eventually overcame that rough patch but that experience has had a lasting effect on me.

I am now in my thirties, married with three children of my own and I often worry about whether or not my children will have enough to eat, even when the cupboards and refrigerator are full. I never want my children to know what it feels like to be truly hungry. I don’t mean hungry in the sense that it’s still a little while until dinner and there tummy is growling. I mean they’re hungry and we don’t know where the next meal is coming from.

Food insecurity is not the same as starvation. Many of the families dealing with this actually receive assistance with meals through programs like the free and reduced lunch program in school, SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp program), and Women Infants and Children (WIC), so they are eating sometimes. Unfortunately however, these resources are not always enough to satisfy a family’s food needs for the whole month.

Since children spend a good part of their day in school, it made me question what are Oregon public schools doing to help reduce the number of children dealing with food insecurity? What I found was inspiring.

One program aimed at ensuring children are eating adequate meals at school and at home is a program called Backpack Buddies. In the North Clackamas School District (NC12), this program provides two meals to hungry students each weekend. Bags are filled with food by volunteers and delivered to Head Start centers, elementary and middle schools in the area. On Fridays, typically while the children are at lunch or recess, school staff put the bags of food in the child’s backpack to take home for the weekend.

I first heard about this program several years ago when my daughter attended an elementary school in NC12. I didn’t realize at that time how widespread the program is. I have recently discovered that Backpack Buddies is currently being used in schools all over Oregon, including schools in Oregon City and Salem. It is also active in over a dozen states across the country.

Embarrassment can be one reason people are hesitant to ask for help. The Backpack Buddies program helps take away some of the embarrassment, making it easier to request assistance. At my daughter’s school, the request for food was made by a parent simply checking a box on a form and returning it to the child’s teacher. The children don’t see the backpacks being filled so they don’t necessarily know who is receiving food. In my opinion this level of anonymity helps make this program so great.

If you would like to know more about the Backpack Buddies program? Take a look at El Puente Elementary School in NC12 for the history of Backpack Buddies. Then check out this article from The Oregonian that talks more about the NC12 Backpack Buddies.

I wish there were programs like this when I was a child struggling with food insecurity. Perhaps life would have felt a little easier for my family. I am so thankful someone had an idea to start such a program and that so many others have implemented the program nationwide. I hope even more people will be inspired to give their time, money, or goods to help this program and others like it continue to grow.

Recently, I had an opportunity to help coordinate my job’s Take Your Child to Work Day event as part of my Community-Based Learning for my college writing class. We took the children to Multnomah County C.R.O.P.S. (Community Reaps Our Produce and Shares) farm where they planted vegetables that will later be donated to Snow Cap Community Charities, a non-profit organization that helps people in need with everything from emergency food boxes to diapers and formula for infants. All of the children absolutely loved the time at the C.R.O.P.S. farm and they all worked extremely hard. I was excited to include my own children in this volunteer opportunity so they could experience the joy of giving back to those who are less fortunate than them. Families just like mine was many years ago.

How to Get Involved

Looking for a way to help? Why not support the Backpack Buddies program. North Clackamas School District began by serving 50 students in 2006. With increased support from the community, it now serves close to 900 students each weekend! Imagine what could happen if you decided to give!

Contact your local school to see if they participate in the Backpack Buddies program. If not, ask them how you might help get one started in your area!

You can also consider volunteering at the Multnomah C.R.O.P.S. farm (see the link above for contact information) or the Oregon Food Bank who is a supporter of the Backpack Buddies program. Volunteering at any of the organizations included on this page is a great way to help decrease food insecurity for families in Oregon.



  1. Hai Nguyen

    Hi Estella,
    Thanks for sharing your hard felt personal story, am so sorry that you have to experience the hardship. On the other hand, I think it made you a stronger person and a very caring human been. Programs such as WIC and Food Stamp are really helpful in our society. I think your point on being embarrassment really important because it’s true. There are more people being food insecure than actually reported, one of the main reason is because of their pride, or too embarrasses to let other know they need help. During my school year, I was too embarrassed to let my friends know that I had reduced lunch program. I think one thing that you can improve is maybe added a little bit more statistic data, such as how many children? adult? are being food insecure. I think you are an amazing person, thank you for everything you had done for the community.


  2. Malissa


    It is very obvious that you have such a caring heart! Thank you for taking the time to research and write about this topic (which is not talked about often enough). It is really sad to think that there are children right here in our neighborhoods who don’t have enough food. It’s heartening to know that there are people who really care and are doing something to help. There was a program similar to Backpack Buddies that my church was involved in when we lived in North Carolina. Food insecurity is a nationwide, and even global issue that needs more attention. I loved that you were open to sharing your own personal hardships, and you let us know how we can get involved and help as well. Thank you!

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