Remarkable Woman: Blessings in a Backpack’s Janice Davis

Remarkable Woman: Blessings in a Backpack’s Janice Davis

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This is the story of Remarkable Women nominee Janice Davis.

From 30 kids and a few bags packed on her living room floor, Janice Davis’ passion to help hungry children has grown more than tenfold.

Now, hundreds count on her to keep them fed 48 hours at a time and she’s signed dozens on to the effort to get that all done.

“The thought of a child not having a meal, and especially for the weekend, that maybe they were provided with food during the week but not on the weekends, is heartbreaking,” said Blessings in a Backpack volunteer Kathy Curtis. “And to know that this program does everything it can to help these children is just remarkable, but truly, the passion behind it is JD.”

Davis, along with her husband, is the force who has nourished the local Blessings in a Backpack effort in Sacramento County for almost eight years.

“There was a national news show and we were watching it at home one day and they were talking about kids not having enough food on the weekends,” Davis, also known as “JD,” recalled. “And we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘People have food stamps. Why don’t they have food?’”

“And so we started doing some research, and come to find out, there’s quite a few kids that are going weekends without food,” she went on to explain. “My daughter, Jen, found Blessings in a Backpack for us. I looked out and most of the nonprofits wanted to keep like 30% of what I raised, that’s 30% more kids I could feed. So, Blessings doesn’t do that.”

What Blessings in a Backpack does do is pack up bulk food items into two breakfasts, two lunches, two snacks, and two dinners for each child in need for each weekend of the month. That way when they don’t have access to the federally-funded free meals at school, they don’t go hungry.

In the capital city alone, the Sacramento Food Bank reports more than 215,000 people suffer from food insecurity.

For the schools that don’t take the bulk products, Davis’ local army of volunteers sifts through them then organizes distributions every other week.

“Now, we have six schools that I send pre-packaged food to,” Davis explained. “So they are not able to come down to our food locker and pick up the bulk food. So I have sent to them, via UPS and FedEx, prepackaged meals.”

Since food prices have risen so much, Davis’ best intentions aren’t footing the bills to fill her food locker.

“Oh my goodness, I write grants,” she said with a chuckle. “The city of Rancho Cordova gave us a grant for $25,000 this year. Travelers gave us a grant of $10,000, which allowed us to add 150 more kids to the program. So I’m out writing grants all the time.”

They’ll also hold a golf tournament to raise money. That’s set for June 10 of this year.

“JD is a big personality,” Curtis said. “She’s got a heart of gold and she’s so committed to this program, to making sure that there is food for those kids.”

She’s so committed that in a time when schools literally can’t get enough money for everything they want to do, she’s chasing districts down to help feed the kids she knows are in need. Davis said it’s actually difficult to get administrators to believe struggling students can get this kind of help for free.

Her program is only serving one school in the Sacramento City Unified School District right now — and she wants to reach more.

“Yes, we are looking at 100 to 150 kids. We’ve got plenty of room in here to store the food. I’ve been writing grants, we’re ready to bring on some more kids,” Davis said. “The hardest part of this whole process is getting the schools to respond to you because I know they read my email and they think, ‘This lady is going to give us food for free and we don’t have to do anything?’“

Beyond what eventually goes into backpacks, Davis also goes into schools to share the story of Maddi’s Fridge, which attempts to destigmatize food insecurity among the littlest learners.

“The haves don’t necessarily know that there’s have nots, so we wanted those two to get introduced,” Davis said.

That face-to-face with those benefiting from her advocacy isn’t something Davis gets to enjoy often. Not ever seeing the payoff to all the hard work almost led her into a burnout phase a few years ago.

Family in a car picking up food in California

The Rancho Cordova program distributes food during COVID school shut downs.

Jan and Ricky Davis

Jan and Ricky Davis.

As odd as it sounds, Davis said the COVID-19 pandemic cured that. At the time, she wasn’t able to give the way she always had because hungry kids weren’t at school.

“We started doing a grab and go over at St. Vianney Church. The food bank was on one side and we set up on the other side of the church,” Davis explained. “And it was the first time we ever got to interact with the families and the kids that we give food to because our program works on anonymity. We don’t know the kids in the program. So as the cars came through, we had dads with tears in their eyes because they had to ask for food for the first time in their lives, and that gave us that proverbial shot in the arm.”

Injury hasn’t blocked the blessings either. While many like to tout that they bust their you-know-what for their cause, Davis can say she’s done that literally.

“I broke my bone,” she laughed. “We were out at the air show and it was just finishing up. We had been cooking chicken tenders and fries all day long, and I turned around to tell my crew, ‘I love you guys so much!’ And as I turned, my feet both went out from underneath me and I hit the concrete right on my derriere.”

Davis said she broke her tailbone and has had to use a walker for the past three to four years.

“That hasn’t slowed me down either,“ she said.

If your child or one you know might benefit from Blessings in a Backpack, start by reaching out to their school to find out if the program is available to them. If it isn’t yet, ask school leaders to get in touch with Davis.