Easy-to-open food, such as mac ‘n’ cheese, Cup o’ Noodle, snack packs, bread and tuna, are packed in the backpack for children to take home over the weekend. RAECHEL DAWSON, the Mirror

BAG feeding program helps Federal Way students bridge the gap

A student from Federal Way High School takes a backpack full of food each week to help feed his family, but he doesn’t take it home.

Instead, he takes it to a hotel in Fife where he, his three brothers, sister and father live.

The teen is preparing to graduate this year. Yet, because of his father’s heart attack, his family relies on the food from a program that is beginning to make a huge impact.

Valerie Danforth started the Bridging A Gap Weekend Feeding Program in 2014 through a St. Luke’s Church $5,000 grant. The program’s focus is to provide weekend breakfast and lunches that students would normally receive during school days. Each week, usually the Friday before the weekend or the day before a school holiday, volunteers pack a backpack with child-friendly meals. Students pick up the backpacks and take the food home. At the beginning of the week, they return the bags so they can receive more food.

“He’s quite the kid,” Danforth said of the student. “He was on the football team, and he is planning to go to college and be a social worker when he grows up.”

It’s stories like his that Danforth is trying to change for the better through BAG.

The program began by feeding seven children each week at Mirror Lake Elementary. It has since grown to feeding hundreds throughout six Federal Way Public Schools with the help of nine community partners and thousands of dollars in donations.

“I’ve lived in Federal Way since I was 3 years old and I never realized – and shame on me – I never realized how many kids went home and they have no food,” Danforth said. “I didn’t realize how much of a problem it was. So, it opened my eyes.”

Danforth said some students in the school district are homeless. According to the district, 59 percent of students are on free- and reduced-lunch programs.

Although the program began three years ago, Danforth said it has really blossomed within the last year.

Last month, the Federal Way Rotary raised $58,100 at its Rotary Gala for BAG. This month, Federal Way Public Schools donated $5,273 of Kiwanis Club of Federal Way’s concession stand donations. The Kiwanis Club also donated an additional $5,000 on top of past years’ grants. St. Luke’s Church and Federal Way Communities in Schools continue to provide donations as well.

Currently, BAG is set up so that one or two community partners supports one school. St. Luke’s Lutheran Church supports Mirror Lake Elementary. Kiwanis Club of Federal Way, Key Club and St. Luke’s support Federal Way High School. Christ Church supports Sacajawea Middle School. Northwest Church supports Olympic View Elementary. A parent group from Sherwood Forest Elementary supports that school, and the Korean American Calvary Baptist Church supports Todd Beamer High School.

Danforth’s wants to create greater awareness of the program and get more community partners so that each of the 39 schools in Federal Way Public Schools has BAG established. She said it costs about $5,000 to provide 15 students a backpack full of food for the entire school year.

“Ideally, as a partner takes on a school, they’re just focused on that one school so they can increase the program within the school and help more students,” Danforth said, adding she believes the most the program serves is 20 students at one school.

Although Danforth has never met the students she helps as the program values student privacy, she said she’s heard positive feedback from school counselors and the occasional handwritten “thank you” notes that come back with the backpacks.

“It’s important for people to know that this is a real need in our community, and I know sometimes we may think that doesn’t happen here or how can that be?” she said. “But there are hungry kids going home every single day, and we can do something about it. We can help them. If we come together as a community, we can feed these kids.”

Advancing Leadership Youth will host “BAG It Up” from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 25 at Overcomers Church in Auburn in an effort to spread the word about the program. Danforth is establishing 501c3 nonprofit status for BAG, as well as a website, and urges anyone with questions about the program to email info@bag-fw.org.

Valerie Danforth, the organizer of the Bridging A Gap Weekend Feeding Program, sits with a backpack and the food it contains, an example of what children take home each weekend in the program. RAECHEL DAWSON, the Mirror

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