Backpack Buddies Bridges The Weekend Food Gap, Helps Vancouver Students

Research | September 15, 2015

It’s the calm before the storm at the narrow annex of Queen Alexandra Elementary School. Volunteers scurry around to get the last bags lined up on the long school tables. Each plastic bag contains an assortment of food items: canned tuna, ready-made meals, apple juice and fresh fruit.

“We have Backpack Buddies today”, a loudspeaker announces. “Boys and girls, please remember to practise courtesy by being respectful of the food and persons.”

The door flies open and a stream of children and parents enter the building.

Emily-Anne Griffiths, co-founder of the Backpack Buddies program and one of the volunteers today, begins handing out food bags — one for each student.  

Food Insecurity Is a Growing Problem for
Families in Vancouver

In 2012, food insecurity affected 1 in 6 children in Canada

Since 2012, child and family poverty has increased from 15.8% to 19.1%

Metro Vancouver has a child poverty rate of 20.2%

More than one in three food bank users in Canada are children

In 2012, 4 million individuals in Canada, including 1.15 million children, experienced some level of food insecurity. This represents nearly 13% of Canadian households.

Emily-Anne and her mom started the program to address “weekend hunger” among inner city school kids. While many schools in Vancouver have lunch programs during the week, kids from low-income families are at risk to go hungry on the weekend, Emily-Ann knows.

“We’ve heard stories of students, eating as much as they can at the end of the week in their snack program, knowing that they might not have anything until Monday morning. It’s pretty staggering and quite shocking that this is happening in our city.”

Students Helping Students

Backpack Buddies started about three years ago with just one school and 20 food bags given out to students every week. As of today, the program is servicing five inner city schools and has nine donor schools on board, which means every Friday over 400 kids get enough food to last for the weekend.

The program is based on the idea of “students helping students”. Students at donor schools volunteer their time to fundraise for food. Once they’ve reached their goal, they buy food items, pack the bags and sometimes even deliver alongside Emily-Anne.

“We really put the power into the hands of the students. I think it’s more rewarding to them that way.”

“A lot of kids today, they feel a lack of community and togetherness and thinking about one’s neighbor, so this program really teaches kids, that they can make a difference for someone in need who’s just down the road.”

The opportunity to help other kids certainly drew Prince of Wales student Jamie Jacobs to Backpack Buddies. Hearing about food insecurity among her peers made a huge impression on her — and inspired her to sign up to volunteer.

Jamie (left) and her friend Maia packing bags for the next Friday delivery.
Jamie (left) and her friend Maia packing bags for the next Friday delivery

“It’s hard to think about people our age going to school and going through a similar day like us, but just without food,” says Jamie.

“I’ll forget a snack at home and I’ll be hungry the whole day. … It just impacts their day so much.”

Sandra: “For me it’s about ‘How can I afford to feed my kids?’”

Back at Queen Alexandra Elementary School, the steady stream of people has dwindled to a few late arrivals. It took fewer than 15 minutes to hand out all the bags and the hall slowly empties.

Emily-Anne starts rolling up the big, blue IKEA bags she used earlier to carry the food while chatting to Sandra Bell. Sandra regularly picks up food for her two youngest children, Christopher and Emi.

Sandra Bell and her two youngest children Christopher (m) and Emi (r)

Sandra is a single mom of three. She recently went back to school to prepare for a university nursing program and her family currently needs income assistance to make ends meet. At times, there is simply no money left to provide six meals over the course of a weekend and without any outside help her kids would go hungry, she says.

“For me it’s not about ‘How can I afford to go to a concert this weekend?’ It’s ‘How can I afford to feed my kids this weekend?’ I really don’t know what I would do without Backpack Buddies.”


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