A pouch of rice. A carton of milk. A dish of applesauce.

Not fancy by any means, but for 250 local schoolchildren, it’s a feast.

It’s part of Three Squares, a program that supplies needy children with nonperishable foods to take home in backpacks.

“We send kid-friendly food to the schools so the kids can take it home and eat well on the weekend,” explained Lisa Hall, warehouse manager for Northwest Harvest Yakima.

Northwest Harvest, the organization that distributes food to food banks around the state, initiated the program several years ago. Schools in Yakima and Toppenish, and those in Spokane, Tacoma and Seattle areas, are among those served.

In Yakima, the local Northwest Harvest warehouse has partnered with several organizations and churches to help distribute the food. Backpacks are filled with nonperishable, single-serving foods for children at seven Yakima schools: Washington, Martin Luther King, Ridgeview, Hoover, Adams, Garfield and Barge-Lincoln. They are sent home with children every Friday.

Three Toppenish schools — Valley View, Lincoln and Kirkwood — also participate.

Up to 25 children per school can receive backpacks, which they return the following Monday to be refilled again at the end of the week.

Foods are chosen for their nutrition and portability. Fresh foods aren’t part of the program, Hall said, because of potential spoilage.

Each backpack, which contains six meals for the weekend, is filled with items such as pouches of oatmeal, rice or macaroni and cheese, to be hydrated with hot water, cereal, applesauce, fruit cups, power bars, raisins, packets of vegetables, chili, juice and shelf-stable milk that doesn’t require refrigeration.

Members of Wesley United Methodist Church come to Northwest Harvest twice a month to operate an assembly line sorting food for backpacks. Then they deliver food to two schools each week.

Retired teacher Marge Bigham, who coordinates the 30 Wesley United volunteers, said they see it as a ministry for children in poverty.

“A primary goal of our church is to eliminate poverty and hunger. That’s what we’re called to do as Christians.”

Bigham believes that those in need often go unnoticed here. “People have no idea how many live below the poverty line. There are a huge number of people who work very hard and care very much for their children,” she said. “I have a real concern for children, especially the ones who get the short end of the stick.”

Other community volunteers also participate in the program. Members of Central Lutheran Church go to the warehouse each week to fill backpacks and deliver food to schools.

Members of Unity Spiritual Life Center pick up food every Thursday at Northwest Harvest, then deliver it to Washington Middle School, to go into backpacks.

Downtown Kiwanis volunteers have also adopted a school in the program.

Jami Willard, Northwest Harvest volunteer coordinator, said these folks are not only performing an important service but are also building rapport with the schools.

Hall agreed, adding, “We’d love to have more people, groups and churches help and have more gently used backpacks.”

Funding comes from the state Northwest Harvest, grants and churches.

Hall admitted it’s not an inexpensive program, mainly because the food is all shelf stable and has to be bought in individual sizes. It costs about $6,000 per school per year.

“It’s a pricey program, but I do think it’s worth it,” she said.

Teachers, counselors and lunch staff recommend children they think are the neediest for Three Squares.

Omar Santoy, a counselor at Adams Elementary School, has been impressed with the results. “Teachers are so happy because rather than having a hungry student, which makes it tough to learn, that’s one less thing to overcome.”

According to Northwest Harvest’s Willard, feedback from schools has been uniformly enthusiastic. “The notes we get back from teachers are really powerful. They’re really grateful.”

One teacher told Hall that a family was initially embarrassed to accept a backpack, but they knew their child needed it. But by the time spring arrived, they were back on their feet financially, so they came back into school and asked the staff to give the backpack to someone else who needed it more.

Counselor Santoy said the program has also provided an important link between school and parents. “To be able to supply a basic need creates a strong partnership. And the parents are very grateful. We tell them it’s not just the school helping, that people in the community really do care about them.”

In a school of 700 students, Santoy said they could definitely use more filled backpacks. “Our criterion is emergency need. If a family has no money, no support and needs food that day, we start them and continue them in the program as long as they need it.”

About half the Adams recipients get backpacks for about a month, then they no longer need them, Santoy explained. The rest receive them for several months or longer.

Bigham, from Wesley United, appreciates how discreetly the backpack dispersal runs. “The schools try to do it so it’s not in any way noticeable to other children. Children just pick up a backpack at the counselor’s office.”

Hall said she was convinced of the efficacy of the program when she heard a pediatrician at a conference describe the effects of hunger. The physician showed images of brains from children who had routinely missed meals, and they had half the neurons of a normal child.

“That really gave me a kick,” Hall said.

It’s a kick truly appreciated in the schools, Santoy said.

“There are wonderful, wonderful organizations out there helping kids, and the kids need it.”

• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or jgargas@yakimaherald.com.