Hunger Task Force: ‘No kid should go hungry’

It’s a disheartening fact that there are families in the Bethel community that can’t always afford to put food on the table. Nearly 50 percent of all Bethel students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, and weekends can be particularly difficult for some families in need. Adding to the problem, the community’s lack of a city government means local families generally have to fend for themselves.

But what the community lacks in governmental outreach, it makes up for in heart. Recognizing a need wasn’t being met, Bethel School District leaders have stepped up to fill the void.

Two years ago the school district teamed up with local faith leaders, charities, and concerned residents, to start a Hunger Task Force.

The Task Force’s aim was simple: Feed the people — especially the children — who are in need.

“Our overarching desire is that no kids go hungry, that no kids develop food insecurity,” said Jay Brower, the district’s Director of Community Connections and one of the people most involved in the Task Force.

The Task Force relies heavily on faith leaders. Many local churches were already offering food services, and the Task Force was able to take those existing programs and use grant money and school district infrastructure to expand on them.

Harvest House, which is a food pantry operated by Cedar Springs Community Church, had already been feeding students who didn’t have enough food to get through the weekend. Prior to connecting with the Hunger Task Force, Harvest House was preparing “Power Packs” for roughly a dozen students each week at Graham Elementary and Kapowsin Elementary.

“We had started something, but we were just limping along,” said Justin Henderson, Director of Harvest House. “And then we found out there were opportunities to team up with the district and United Way.”

Now two years into its partnership with the Task Force, Harvest House gives out more than 200 Power Packs — which hold enough food to last a weekend — at 12 different schools each week.

The Power Pack program has been an unmitigated success, but everyone involved admits it’s only a drop in the bucket of what’s needed in the district. Task Force members understand they need to find creative ways to reach those in need.

It was that sort of thinking that led to the creation of the Bethel Outreach Bus, or B.O.B., as it is lovingly known in the Bethel community. On any given week, B.O.B. is out in the district supplying food, clothes, toys and general assistance to anyone who needs it.

It’s an usual program for a school district to take on, but Bethel isn’t your average district.

“It’s all about taking responsibility for our own community,” said Vickie Ayers, Bethel’s Assistant Director of Child Nutrition. “We’re not Tacoma or Seattle or some of these other districts that have a major city behind them with these types of resources. We don’t have those out here, so we have to, as the school district and the largest employer out here, step up and help our neighbors.”

Keeping children well fed isn’t simply a humanitarian issue, either. Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel said there is more to being hungry than many people think.

“I think kids who come to school hungry not only can’t concentrate on learning because they’re physically hungry, but there is that social component, that mental component, that self-worth component that needs to be reinforced so kids feel confident, feel welcomed and know they are part of this larger social family — the school,” Seigel said.

It was Seigel’s wife, Sandy, who first sparked the idea of the Task Force. For years, Sandy Seigel has picked up donated bread from Franz Bakery Outlet and delivered it to Bethel schools.

She was delivering bread to Spanaway Elementary School about three years ago when she saw something that affected her greatly. As Tom Seigel tells it, Sandy was in the school’s front office when she overheard a conversation between a young boy and a staff member.

“A staff member asked (the boy) what was wrong, and his response was, ‘I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten anything since Friday.’ This was a Monday. So we really do have kids who are food insecure and in some cases don’t have anything to eat at all over the weekends,” Tom Seigel said.

This summer our own Congressman Denny Heck stopped by Shining Mountain Elementary to serve lunch to students as part of the Summer Food Service Program, which is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and is available to communities where at least 50 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.

Heck succinctly summed up why it’s so important to focus on childhood hunger.

“If you’re hungry you can’t learn. It’s not rocket science,” he said.

That’s a sentiment that Bethel leaders share, and that’s why so many are working so hard to help the Task Force grow.

Rep. Denny Heck serves lunch at Shining Mountain Elementary

“At the Child Nutrition Department, our big push is that hungry kids can’t learn,” said Leeda Beha, the district’s Child Nutrition Director. “Not that they’re not capable, but it makes it a lot more difficult for them.”

But Beha and other district leaders also realize it’s not only about hunger. Students who don’t have money for food oftentimes don’t have money for other basic needs. That means students are coming to school in dirty clothes or can’t afford basic toiletries like toothbrushes or deodorant.

The youngest member of the Hunger Task Force is 13-year-old Kael Johnson. Johnson, an eighth grader at Liberty Middle School, joined the Task Force last year after coming up with his own unique way of helping deal with the hunger problem in schools.

With help from his grandma, Johnson came up with the idea for what he calls Care Closets. Like many good plans, the idea behind Care Closets is simple: Each school will be given a mobile pantry that contains food and basic toiletries for kids in need.

“What really made me want to put time and effort into it is that it really is a big problem in our schools,” Johnson said. “It’s not like an adult who can go and get a job to have money for food. They’re a kid, so it’s really whatever their parents are able to provide for them.”

What makes the Care Closet concept unique is the mobility component. Johnson knows that kids can be cruel and there is sometimes a stigma associated with needing food or deodorant.

“The mobile part of it is for the confidentiality of the kids. I know it’s kind of weird to have to be seen there,” Johnson said.

Care Closets are more concept than reality at the moment, but Johnson and the rest of the Task Force hope to begin rolling them out to middle and high schools this year.

Even without the Care Closets, Johnson says there are plenty of ways for kids to help out.

“Just those little things like donating food can be important,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just emotional support, too. Just kind of saying, ‘Hey, we all have our things that we’re going through.’”

Everyone involved with the Hunger Task Force agrees there’s much more work to be done. Thankfully, the Bethel community is full of passionate people who are stepping up to make a difference.

Randy McElliott, the co-director of Parkway Community Services, has spent years delivering food to people in need. Parkway Community Services has also been heavily involved in the Power Pack program, and last year the Task Force was awarded a $7,500 grant from United Way of Pierce County to expand the program.

The program, which also serves kids in Tacoma and Clover Park, has served more than 180,000 meals to more than 550 local children, according to United Way of Pierce County.

The shear number of children in need could seem overwhelming, but Task Force leaders understand how important it is for the community to have healthy, well-fed children.

For his part, Brower often thinks back to an old adage that he has kept close to him for years.

“Strong schools build strong communities, and strong communities build strong schools,” he said.

Helping kids learn is the driving force behind all we do in the Bethel School District.