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Community Effort Keeps Kids Fed 

Food for People program seeks additional support amid spiking demand, rising costs

click to enlarge Food sits at Food for People ready to be packed into bags to be sent home with local students in need as a part of the nonprofit's Backpacks for Kids program.


Food sits at Food for People ready to be packed into bags to be sent home with local students in need as a part of the nonprofit's Backpacks for Kids program.

A local program aimed at making sure all Humboldt County school kids have daily access to food is looking for more community support as it struggles to meet soaring demand while facing spiking food prices.

Started in 2006 as a pilot project to serve kids at three Fortuna school sites, Food for People's Backpacks for Kids program has grown to put food into the hands of more than 650 children countywide through partnerships with 36 school sites. The program offers selected students food bags every Friday afternoon, aiming to bridge the nutrition gap many students who receive free breakfasts and lunches at school face over the weekend.

Food for People Executive Director Carly Robbins says local schools do an amazing job with their nutrition programs, offering free or reduced cost breakfasts and lunches to the 60 percent of Humboldt County students who qualify. But in a county in which 20 percent of households live below the federal poverty line — $30,000 annually for a household of four — that leaves many children uncertain where regular meals will come from when school isn't in session.

"All of Food for People's child nutrition programs aim to help kids when they don't have that safety net of school meals," Robbins says, adding that the nutrition programs also help educational outcomes, enabling students to arrive nourished and ready to learn at the start of the week.

But Food for People is facing a near-perfect storm this year, as need for the program has risen markedly as costs continue to soar.

On the need side, Robbins says local families have faced increased food insecurity for some time but things grew markedly worse in April, when COVID-19 emergency allotments through CalFresh — the state's food aid program — came to an end, meaning qualifying families saw their benefit amounts slashed by as much as $300 a month.

Meanwhile, household costs continue to rise. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices increased by 9.9 percent in 2022 and were projected to spike another 5.9 percent this year. According to the Consumer Price Index, household costs across all categories have risen 3.7 percent over the past year.

Robbins says Food for People is still crunching numbers but preliminary figures show the nonprofit's countywide food distributions have increased 25 to 40 percent since January, "a significant jump."

And with more and more families struggling to make ends meet, and more and more people looking for assistance, Robbins says fewer in the local community are able to donate to Food for People.

"We're at a time when the need is very high and the donations are a little lower," she says.

And that's felt acutely in the Backpacks for Kids program, which receives no state or federal support and is funded entirely through community donations and administered primarily through school sites with volunteer support.

Robbins says Food for People procures the food, with an eye on foods that "are kid-friendly" and need minimal parental help or supervision. Typical bags contain things like macaroni and cheese, granola bars, cereal, a loaf of bread and canned soups or stews — enough to provide kids with breakfast, lunch and dinner for two days, as well as snacks.

"Peanut butter is a staple," Robbins says.

Volunteers — often through service organizations like Rotary or Soroptimist — come pick up the food from Food for People's warehouse and sort it into individual bags, which are then delivered to school sites for distribution on Friday afternoons.

Adm Natanel, the coordinator for the Fortuna Family Resource Center run through the Fortuna Elementary School District, says he's seen a significant spike in families looking for help.

"I can definitely say there's been a huge increase in the need for food support over the last year or so," Natanel says.

Unfortunately, because the program is entirely community donation funded and operates with limited resources, there simply isn't enough food to meet the need. Natanel and Robbins say the program works to ensure the children most in need are first in line for food bags.

For Natanel, that means coordinating outside agencies and teachers who may have heard a student say something to indicate food insecurity at home to triage referrals.

"At the end of last year, I think we were up to 100 or so students and we still had a waitlist," he says. "There's definitely always demand."

With that in mind, Food for People is hoping those who can will dig a little deeper this year to help a child in need, noting that it takes $325 to sponsor a kids' weekend meals for the entire school year. The more support the program gets, the more children it will be able to keep fed, Robbins says.

"Every little bit helps," Robbins says, noting that donations can be made at and no amount is too small.

With so much food insecurity in the community, Food for People is also always in need of volunteers, whether to sort donations, work at the food pantry or make deliveries to seniors.

"There's always opportunities to help out," she says, adding that those interested should visit the nonprofit's website or call (707) 445-3166.

Natanel says the resource center asked students receiving food from the program to write thank you notes for the volunteers, and the result was heartwarming.

"There were some really sweet notes, just kind of saying how grateful they were and how much they liked the food," he says, adding that parents are always fast to express their gratitude, too. "It's one bag of food a week, but even that amount makes a difference to the families who get it."

Robbins says she is thankful, too, noting the program that helps keep more than 600 children fed annually is only possible through community giving.

"We're deeply grateful for our community," she says. "The only reason this program exists and is able to exist is because of our community and its generosity. We just want to give a huge thanks to everyone who has donated or volunteered to keep it going."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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