Even though Valerie Danforth hasn’t lived the hardship, she has spent years spearheading efforts to reduce child hunger by founding the Federal Way Bridging A Gap Program.
“I, personally, have never experienced hunger, and I can’t even imagine a child going home and not having food,” she said. “It really bothered me … Just the thought of kids going hungry, I can’t handle that.”
In 2014, Danforth founded the BAG Program with assistance from a $5,000 grant from St. Luke’s Church Foundation. This month, she is being recognized as the Mirror’s Citizen of the Month for September.
Danforth is a member of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, which has been partnering with Mirror Lake Elementary School for about a decade.
Through her volunteering at Mirror Lake, Danforth found out the dire need of weekend meals for local children.
The BAG Program provides 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 the next week’s meals.
Steadily growing over the last five years, Danforth has learned how extensive the need for this program is throughout the Federal Way community.
“I know it won’t solve the problem, but if it can give [the students] some sort of support and help the families, that’s what we want,” she said.
This school year, the BAG Program will serve 220 students each weekend.
“Our goal is to be in every school in the district,” Danforth said. The program is currently serving 14 of the district’s 37 schools. “Our growth is going in the right direction.”
Based on current data to date, 14,142 students receive free and reduced meals in FWPS schools, according to the district. This equates to 61.88% of the 22,854 total students enrolled.
“For us, we use that as a gauge because those students are living at or near the poverty level for South King County,” Danforth said. “For many of those students, the meals that they receive at schools are the meals that they get for the day. When they go home, they may or may not have food.”
Danforth said she’s heard from schools that BAG helps kids improve their attendance, lessen their fear surrounding breaks from school, and helps reduce behavioral difficulties connected to anxiety.
“It gives them a little bit of stability over the weekend which we really are happy to be able to do.”
Danforth and her network of volunteers, sponsors and partners are gearing up to have the first backpacks going home with some schools the first weekend of October. The remainder of schools will be served in early November.
“It’s been an exciting time for us,” Danforth said.
For the first time this year, Federal Way Public Schools has allowed the program to use a space at the former central kitchen at Federal Way High School. Occupying this new space allows the program to collaborate and consolidate into a centralized area, which will provide space to store food items and pack weekend bags.
“This way, we can put all the program together,” she said. “It’s going to make it much more efficient for us.”
Inside the backpacks there is enough food to replace two breakfasts, two lunches and snacks. Items include easy-to-open soups, pasta, oatmeal, tuna, granola bars, cups of fruit, crackers and beverages among others.
Danforth’s wants to create greater awareness of the program and get more community partners so that the program can be offered at each of the district’s 39 schools.
A supportive web of partnerships includes Federal Way Public Schools, the Federal Way Multi-Service Center, Communities in Schools, Rotary, Kiwanis, and a network of local churches.
Along with monetary support, these partners also donate food, pack the backpacks, and deliver to schools.
“Ultimately, we’d like BAG to be at a point where any student who has a need for the program will have access to it,” she said. “That’s what we’re working toward every day, really, really hard.”
Approximately $5,000 provides 15 students a backpack full of food for the entire school year.
The program’s vision is to continue to grow in serving and sponsorships.
“I’m just humbled,” Danforth said of her honor as Citizen of the Month. “I just feel like this honor should belong to everyone who has been a part of BAG — all of the volunteers, the board members, our partners.”
It’s a group effort, Danforth added: “I’m honored that I would be selected for this but I really feel I share this with everybody because no one person can make this happen.”
This weekend food program intended to feed the body, but Danforth has found it also feeds the soul.
“I love that it’s bringing people together in the community,” she said. “It’s providing opportunity for connections in the community between organizations and schools. It brings in a lot of people together that may not have connected before.”