For some Cariboo students, a backpack filled with food and dropped off at school is how they eat on weekends.
Volunteers from the Rotary Club of Williams Lake gather weekly to fill backpacks — called Starfish Packs — with food and then deliver them to the five elementary schools in town (Cataline, Nesika, Marie Sharpe, Mountview and Chilcotin Road). The students in need take the backpacks home from school on Fridays and then bring them back to school empty on Mondays.
The Starfish Pack Program started in Abbotsford after a teacher found herself feeding some of her hungry Kindergarten students returning to school on Monday. The program expanded across the province and share the following parable on its website:
On the morning after a violent storm, the residents of a seaside village awoke to find their beach covered with hundreds of dying starfish which had washed ashore. As the community gathered at the end of the beach, they spoke in hushed tones about the great sadness of the disaster. Suddenly, a young girl ran towards the beach and began to pick the starfish one at a time, then throwing them back into the water.
A village elder walked towards the young girl and kindly said, “Child, there are hundreds of starfish on this beach and this must be happening on other beaches up and down the coast. You must understand that you alone can’t possibly make a difference.”
The little girl looked up at the old man, smiled and bent down to pick another starfish. As she threw it back into the sea, she replied, “I made a huge difference to that one!”
Retired teacher Janet Sandberg began coordinating the Starfish program three years ago, ensuring the menus are “robust and healthy,” she explained, and that the food can be prepared by the children.
On Thursdays, the volunteers pack the backpacks with pantry items, such as cereal, bread, peanut butter, jam or Nutella, a soup or chili, crackers, a tinned protein item, canned vegetables, Knorr Sidekicks pasta and fresh fruit like apples or oranges. Each backpack receives enough food for two breakfasts, two lunches, two suppers and snacks for the weekend. Students receive the holiday menu on long weekends, which is more substantial.
Bill Carruthers has been with the Rotary Club for 32 years, helping specifically with the Starfish Pack program for eight. He packs the backpacks to help kids succeed.
“Kids in school that are hungry aren’t concentrating,” Carruthers explained. “If we can keep them focused on school, they have a better chance.”
This year, Save-On-Foods has been providing the food, with the Rotary Club doing fundraising throughout the year. Currently, 61 backpacks are delivered to the five schools, although Janet noted this number fluctuates, with a few students being absent occasionally. When she started with the Starfish program three years ago, they were delivering 27 backpacks to three schools.
Sandtronic Business Systems, owned by the Sandberg family, provides its back room as a place to pack the backpacks each week. Account manager Andrew Sandberg, also the Rotary Club president, said they’ve been using Sandtronic’s space for about four years.
Janet explained the children receiving backpacks are the ones whose families have signed up for the free program through their school’s administration. The average price to fill a backpack for the school year is around $800-$850.
“As a retired teacher, I know very well that there’s more need than what we’re fulfilling, but we can’t force anything on a family,” said Janet.
Those wishing to donate to the program can do so by donating to the Cariboo Friendship Society, specifying the funds are for the Starfish Pack Program.
When asked if they’ve been able to meet the demands of students in need, Janet said they’ve never had to turn a family away.