When San Diego residents Sue and Bill McLeod first learned about the extent of childhood hunger in their own county, they instinctively knew they had to do something about it. It didn’t seem right to them that for many children, the only nutritious meal they would have all week would be their school lunch. Childhood hunger has ramifications that extend beyond the table and the couple knew that the potential for long-term consequences -- from health issues to behavioral problems -- was too big to ignore. So they took it upon themselves to start a non-profit called Got Your Back San Diego: a weekend food assistance program developed specifically for children attending San Diego County schools who have been identified as homeless and/or food insecure. That was nine years ago. Today, the organization is going strong and recently caught our attention over at LonoLife. We were thrilled to be able to contribute our bone broth to the backpacks sent home with the program recipients, but even more excited to see the positive impact Sue and Bill’s organization is having on vulnerable children in our own backyard.
How did the scale of this problem first come to your attention?
We first heard about the hard cold truth of childhood hunger that exists in our own backyard when we were buying a puppy from a breeder who is the founder of another organization based in Orange County called Giving Children Hope that provides medical supplies for disaster relief all over the world. He gave us a tour of their warehouse in Fullerton and when we turned the corner into another space there were a line of red backpacks hanging on the wall. He said, “We heard there are at least 26,000 children in Orange County elementary schools to leave school on Friday and return to school on Monday hungry because they haven’t had a nutritious meal the entire weekend or no food at all.” Turns out the statistics were pretty similar for San Diego, and we could hardly believe our ears!
What was the key driver behind deciding to take action yourself?
We talked about it the whole drive home and decided we had to do something about it. My husband was one of those kids growing up, and he understood the emotional and physical aspect of not being nurtured as a child with the MOST basic of needs: food and loving care. We knew the long term effects of childhood hunger mentally, spiritually, physically, and academically, and we wanted to make a difference in the lives of these children.
We already had a warehouse that stored our boat and and functioned as an office for our environmental testing company (AMI testing.) We got to work immediately checking in with the local schools and decided we could do this just the two of us. We started out with 22 kids in Oceanside elementary schools. After a short while, North Coast Church heard about what we were doing and decided they wanted to get involved and schedule volunteers on a weekly basis. That was a huge blessing and really where it all began.
Tell us a little more about how this program works.
The teachers determine which children show the signs of hunger and malnourishment, and in September they provide us with the names of children in need. We provide a backpack full of weekend food assistance for these children. It typically consists of two breakfasts (two oatmeal packets, two milk boxes, and two fruit cups); lunch (canned meat or tuna, a can of soup, a package of top Ramen, a can of vegetables, and mac & cheese); a jar of peanut butter and crackers; a can of beans; and dinner (typically pasta and spaghetti sauce and a can of chili or a Chef Boyardee.) They also get 4 to 8 healthy snacks. It’s quite a bit of food and usually enough for them to share with another sibling. These kids are really grateful for their food and feel like they are contributing to their family situation. The schools provide some kind of nutritional homework for them to do so they feel they are earning their food instead of being entitled to free food which would cause them to feel set apart. We want them to know above all that they matter. At the end of the weekend, they return their backpack empty.
How many school children have you helped so far?
We are entering our ninth school year in September and we’ve helped out about 1,200 local families. Thousands of people in this community have helped us and joined in this effort to continue to keep our doors open by donating to our organization. We could not do this without the help of our community!
Jill Holland from LonoLife & Sue McLeod from the organization
What can local businesses do to help?
More than anything we need the money to keep our doors open. Our rent was doubled last year because of new ownership and that was a huge deal. We didn’t know if we would be able to stay but we did another year! It costs $30 to feed a child for an entire month of weekends. That $30 will make sure that a child will have enough food to sustain them every single weekend of the school year. It goes a long way in our hands! That’s one way local businesses can help us.
We also need businesses to come on board with us and help spread the word and continue to make this a community project. The merchants in downtown Carlsbad have been exceptionally helpful. And LonoLife’s contribution of bone broth stick packs has been a great addition to our food. I love to give the healthiest food I can to these kids, but because it’s packed on Tuesday night and not picked up until Friday we can’t give fresh produce. But we do the best we can and having Bone Broth to go with their Ramen makes me want to sing and dance! 10g of protein? That is so awesome!
How can the local community get involved?
I always say, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something so make your something count.” No child is too young to get involved and no person is too old. We’ve had helpers of every age group including children who have given up presents for their birthday and asked that people would just bring food to Got Your Back. So many people want to help and do good things but they don’t know what’s available. Bringing childhood hunger awareness to San Diego County has brought most of the help we need!
How do you see the organization growing over time?
Our goal is to make it to 10 years (we’ve been operating for nine.) We are both in our late 60s and running our other businesses. Got Your Back is a full-time effort. We have never had one single week we couldn’t provide for every child we were committed to that year. It’s amazing and almost miraculous what we’ve been able to do and we count our blessings.
To find out how you can support the program, just head on over here: https://www.gotyourbacksandiego.org/get_involved