Tuna fish has just saved Garibaldi Grade School’s backpack program.
2,100 cans of tuna fish, that is.
By Jordan Wolfe
Backpack programs across the county aim to provide low-income or homeless children guaranteed meals over the weekend, when they may not know when or where their next meal will come from. “Many children have difficulty filling the food gap between Friday afternoon and Monday morning,” says Nehalem Elementary School’s coordinator, Rose Hucek.
She was approached by the Manager of Les Schwab Tire Center in Tillamook, Pat Dean, about a donation.
Dean says, “we offered a cash donation to Rose, but she said Garibaldi’s program had recently run out of funds, so because of her, we donated $1,000 to Garibaldi.”
Family Resource Coordinator for Garibaldi Grade School, Terry Houchins says, “the donation kept the program going. If we just had that, it would’ve, probably, kept us going until the end of the school year.”
She says that Garibaldi Grade School has had a backpack program for five or six years.
“I used to do a whole backpack that would feed a whole family,” Houchins says, “but this year we’ve changed to a gallon-sized bag. This year, money hasn’t shown up.”
But the donations from Dean and Les Schwab did not stop there.
Houchins says, “Last week, Rose asked ‘do you want tuna?’ I didn’t know I’d be getting 2,100 cans of it.”
A friend of Dean’s from when he worked in Lincoln City, and donated to their community’s backpack program, had been donated 80,000 cans of mislabeled tuna fish. Dean purchased 16,000 cans and has been distributing loads to the schools across the county.
“It is an inexpensive way for us to provide energy to these kids so they can get educated to become productive members of society,” Dean says. “We’re strong advocates for people to get through school. Who knows, they could be the next CEO of Les Schwab Tire Centers.”
For Hucek, “hungry kids strike a chord in people.” She says she met with Nehalem Elementary School’s Principal, Kristi Woika to see if there were students who would benefit from weekend food.
“We started in January, this year. Right out of the gate, we had 25 children signed up,” Hucek says. “That number is up to 34.”
She says, “the program is protein based, with fresh, beautiful fruit.” Every Friday, she gives the students that are apart of the program two breakfasts, two lunches, and snacks.
A priority for Hucek is to have enough food to share with a sibling that is not in school yet. She also says that if the child receives no other food source, that what is provided on Friday will be enough for the whole weekend.
“If there is a three-day weekend, I make sure we put more food in,” she says. “Spring Break was difficult, because we had to try our best to give the kids 10 days worth of food.” She says that much food for the kindergartners to carry was especially difficult.
Hucek, who has first and fifth grade daughters, says “They are seeing their peers in need. It is teaching them generosity, kindness and community service.”
The community response has been spreading, according to Hucek. She says a third grade girl from Nehalem Elementary, asked for donations to the backpack program for her birthday and brought food and money to Hucek and helped her pack the bags.
When Dean arrived with the roughly 3,000 cans of tuna for Nehalem Elementary School, he and Hucek were aided by the S.H.E. Warriors (Sharing Health and Exercise), a group of fourth and fifth grade girls.
“It would’ve taken a long time to unload all of that tuna, without those girls,” Hucek says.
Planning ahead to the summer, Hucek says, “the kids are depending so much on this during the school year. We are trying to raise enough funds to provide 10 weeks of cereal and shelf-stable milk.”
For both Hucek and Houchins, the more they are donated, the higher quality food they are able to provide to the children.
Hucek says, “the more money we are donated, the more protein we’re able to provide. These are growing bodies. It’s hard to grow a body on Top Ramen.”
Houchins says, “The kids have been very excited. They told me they put tuna in their Top Ramen or in their mac ‘n’ cheese.” She says she has been considering giving the children recipes.
At the current rate, Garibaldi Grade School will have enough protein-packed fish for 52 weeks. Until space is cleared for it, however, all 2,100 cans have had to stay in Houchins’ office.
“It’s a conversation piece.”
To get involved, or for more information:
Nehalem Elementary School – Contact Rose Hucek at 503-440-9686.
Garibaldi Grade School – Contact Terry Houchins at 503-322-0311.