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Island communities on wait-list for program that fills ‘weekend hunger gap’ for kids

Half the 22 communities on the wait-list for Backpack Buddies, which sends kids home with backpacks full of food for the weekend, are on Vancouver Island, says the charity.
Anne Batey, front, and members of the Order of St. John package food on Wednesday at a warehouse used by Backpack Buddies. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

For the first time in more than 10 years of existence, a B.C. charity that provides backpacks of food to tide children over the weekend has a wait-list of sites wanting to sign up — and half of those 22 sites are on Vancouver Island.

That came as a surprise to Backpack Buddies executive director Emily-anne King, who started the organization with her mother, Joanne Griffiths, in Vancouver in 2012.

The goal of the program is to fill what King calls the “weekend hunger gap” for school children.

“You often hear of kids that rely on school meal programs Monday to Friday but will go home on the weekends with little or nothing to eat,” she said. “So our mission is make sure that kids have that Saturday/Sunday period covered to ensure they have seven days of food security.”

The program grew quickly after it was launched a decade ago, King said. “We started with 20 bags one Friday afternoon,” she said. “Fast forward to today and we’re supporting over 6,000 children a week all across British Columbia in 66 communities and at over 340 distribution sites.

“The more we’ve done the more need we’ve seen.”

Funding for the group comes from everything from grants to donations from individuals, businesses and corporations, she said.

That includes the local chapter of the Sovereign Order of St. John, a philanthropic group that itself got a big Times Colonist Christmas Fund grant to spread among recipients.

Backpack Buddies expanded to Vancouver Island about four years ago, King said, and is currently offered in 115 Island schools from Victoria to Port Hardy.

That includes 21 schools in Sooke School District, from elementary to secondary.

Sooke superintendent Scott Stinson praised the program, which he called a “really nice complement” to the provincially funded Feeding Futures program, which provides students healthy meals and snacks during the week.

“This is an extension of that, which really supports them and their families into the weekend. For lots of students, as they head into the weekend, it’s a bit of a challenge for them.”

The number of children Backpack Buddies helps each year is growing. On the Island, it’s increased from 1,350 a week last year to 2,000 a week in 2023. Overall in B.C., the number has risen to 6,000 a week from 5,000 last year.

Island communities that want to get involved range from Esquimalt to Nanaimo and Qualicum Beach. The program considers factors such as the amount of food requested and proximity to current locations before signing on new communities, said King, adding that occasionally a donor or a grant will designate a particular recipient community.

She was in Victoria recently to look at new warehouse space in Saanich that the group hopes will increase its capacity to serve the Island.

“Statistically we know that next to Metro Vancouver, the Island has the highest proportion of children living in poverty in the province,” King said. “That number is approximately 10,000 children or more living with food insecurity.”

Some of the more remote areas of the Island also have fewer services for families and children than other parts of B.C., she said.

One challenge the group faces is rising food prices. Backpack Buddies expects to spend close to $20,000 more every month for food during the 2022-23 school year. The anticipated monthly food bill for this September to December is $154,810, up from $137,000 over those months last year.

The holiday period is a good time to support groups like Backpack Buddies, said King, who notes that a donation of $20 will fill a bag with food.

“I think it’s a particular time of year when people are really thinking about their community and those around them, and the season of giving.”

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Or mail a cheque to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, Victoria, B.C. V9A 6X5.

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