REGION — Bill and Sue McLeod are fighting childhood hunger one backpack at a time.
When the Oceanside couple learned that 26,000 San Diego elementary school children go without food every weekend, they founded Got Your Back (GYB) San Diego, a food assistance program for elementary school children who are homeless and/or food insecure.
Every Friday, school liaisons distribute backpacks loaded with six, single-serving sized meals — two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and snacks — to children most likely to go hungry.
Funded by local businesses, churches, social organizations and private donations, GYB feeds “community children from all walks of life who are left with little or nothing to eat every weekend.”
“Each child gets two backpacks, one filled and one to be filled,” Co-Founder Sue McLeod said. “Our backpacks sometimes feed entire families. Knowing that we’re changing a kid’s life, and possibly their families for the better, is the best feeling in the world.”
The husband and wife team work diligently to dispense foods high in protein and low in sugar. Non-perishable items include oatmeal; milk; juices; fruit cups; soups; crackers; flatbreads; canned vegetables, meats, chili and fish; macaroni and cheese; spaghetti and sauce; Chef Boyardee products; and ready-to-go meals.
Healthy and nutritious snacks sidestep “boring, good-for-you” treats and every other week a jar of peanut butter and Jell-O are added to the mix.
The children also receive seasonal gifts.
“One client bought 180 brand-new, cozy, clean blankets and another purchased Valentine chocolate,” McLeod said. “We’re not just fulfilling a basic need. We’re letting these children know that they matter. We’re speaking about love and care.”
McLeod explained that children who suffer from hunger and poor nutrition are at higher risk for chronic dental and health issues. In addition, children who are food insecure tend to incite and participate in school truancy, tardiness, and bullying because of a heightened sense of hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety and mood swings.
“Childhood hunger is devastating,” she said. “Hungry children are vulnerable for long-term health issues and behavioral challenges. And hunger hinders a child’s ability to function normally and participate fully in school and other activities.
“Adding insult to injury, the kids who are out there hungry become prime targets for traffickers,” she said.
The pair works with the North County community to garner individuals who share their compassion and vision to address the $30 per child monthly cost. Fundraisers, food drives and social media — including Facebook and the Nextdoor App — play an integral role in soliciting food, money, and gifts. Food is purchased at the Food Bank and the Grocery Outlet.
Every Tuesday of the school year, members of Vista’s North Coast Church team together to stuff the backpacks.
“North Coast Church gathers its youth groups to help,” said McLeod. “These are kids helping kids. We couldn’t do this without overwhelming support from the community.”
While the couple remains the face of the project, they also remain anonymous.
“We respect the children’s privacy but they know Got Your Back,” said McLeod.
McLeod said that the process to become a GYB kid is seamless.
“Teachers notice changes in a child’s behavior, appearance, and cleanliness and contact counselors who in turn contact the family,” she said. “The family works with the liaison to determine if there’s a real need and the liaison works with us. Minimal paperwork is then completed and processed.”
Nine years ago, GYB fed 22 students from Oceanside’s Olive Elementary School. Today GYB has exploded into feeding as many as 400 North County students a year. But the couple admits that keeping the count under 200 is imperative for their “sanity.”
“Two hundred keeps GYB sane because this is a full-time operation,” said McLeod. “If we could afford to hire helpers, we’d feed twice as many kids. But we’re a grassroots, nonprofit ministry running Got Your Back as a business while we attend to our day jobs.”
The ordained pastors consider GYB their present ministry.
“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something, and I believe in making that something count,” McLeod said. “We are our brother’s keeper. While we’ve been blessed to do many rewarding things, this is God’s plan for us now. These kids carry their backpacks proudly because they know they’re helping their families eat during a time when food is scarce or completely unavailable.”
Lucia Viti is a seasoned journalist, photojournalist and published author who covers all regions in feature and news reporting. Sporting a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the University of West Virginia, she spent 20 years in New York in the fields of Public Relations, Advertising and Medical Communications. Her love for outdoor sports landed her in Carlsbad in 1999 where she segued into news and feature reporting. Her photographs are sold locally in artisan shops throughout the County.