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Walmart funds three backpack programs in Lake County

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Clearlake, CA - On Tuesday, February 4, Walmart presented a check to North Coast Opportunities – Community Action (NCO-CA) in the amount of $25,000. The grant money will be used to start a “backpack” program – the fourth of its kind in Lake County – in the Kelseyville School District. Starting this month, the Kelseyville program will serve 72 students and their families at the Kelseyville and Riviera elementary schools, as well as Mt. Vista middle school.

Every week that school is in session, participating students receive a backpack full of food to take home. The goal is 7-10 pounds, but according to Lake County NCO-CA Project Coordinator Tammy Alakszay, students often take home “way more.” The food is primarily healthy and minimally processed, with fresh fruits and vegetables making up a large part of each bag.

The first program began in February 2013, after the Redwood Empire Food Bank – in partnership with NCO-CA – applied for and received a Walmart Foundation grant. The program sponsors 120 students at three of the four schools in the Konocti School District. With additional funds from a private donor, the fourth school was added and the total number of students served was increased to 144. The grant is funded through May 2015.

With the one-year anniversary of the first backpack program in sight, communities across Lake County are eagerly expanding on its success. In addition to the new Kelseyville program, the Middletown Unified School District also applied for and received a Walmart Foundation grant. As a result, 24 students and their families started receiving weekly food packages in January 2014.

Additionally, the Lake County Hunger Task Force recently started its own backpack program in Upper Lake and Lucerne, with 24 students and their families receiving weekly food packages. The program is entirely funded and run by LCHTF staff and volunteers.

All of the programs are run with support from Healthy Start at each school, whose staff identify the students most in need and provide logistical support for the actual food distribution. Lake County Office of Education Healthy Start Program Director Joan Reynolds has given her full support to the backpack programs, saying it makes sense to distribute food through the schools. “There are a lot of food pantries doing their best to meet community needs, but not everyone has access to them.  These parents come to the schools and are already familiar with Healthy Start.” She adds, “It’s a win-win: families are getting what they need, and we are also able to share crucial information when they come to pick up their kids and their backpacks.”

These backpack programs are filling a crucial need, and are being met with enthusiasm and gratitude by those impacted. Medina DeCosta is a parent of a kindergartener at Pomo School in the Konocti School District. They have been receiving weekly bags of food since the program started, and DeCosta says it has “helped immensely.” An AmeriCorps volunteer at Pomo Preschool, DeCosta says that it’s hard to get to the food pantry because the pick-up times usually fall within her work day. “With the backpack program, they’re very flexible and let me pick it up on my lunch break.”

Although all the programs are working together, Alakszay has a vision of even more collaboration in the future. “By further integrating these programs, we could streamline the process, make it more efficient, and reach more families,” she says. “The goal is always to serve more people.”

Photo, from left: Coleen Lee, Assistant Manager at Clearlake Walmart; Krystal Eckhardt, Associate at Clearlake Walmart; Berdie Guerrero, Bilingual Family Advocate with Lake County Office of Education Healthy Start Program; Travis Peck, Manager of Clearlake Walmart; Patty Bruder, Executive Director of NCO; Tammy Alakszay, Lake County NCO-CA Project Coordinator. Photo taken by Kathleen Reese.