Meet Liz Benko, Our Packs For Kids Coordinator

Meet Liz Benko an incredible volunteer who runs our Packs For Kids program, providing weekend meals for local children. She’s made such a difference in so many lives and is always working to find creative ways to save money on purchasing, and even helped supply more than 250 laptops for local students in the schools we partner with. Read on to learn more about this important program and how you can donate or volunteer!

When did you start volunteering at the Food Bank?

I started as a volunteer in late 2019 not long before everything shut down for Covid. In 2021 I took over as a volunteer coordinator for the Packs For Kids program. 

Tell us a little about your background?

I was an architect and project manager for many years and moved on from that career. I felt I wasn’t making a difference in the world and helping my community in the way that I wanted to. I was raised by parents who went out of their way to teach about being a part of the community and doing what you can to contribute time, energy and talents. 

What is the Packs for Kids program at University District Food Bank?

The program started in the early 2000s with one local school after Food Bank staff learned about the food insecurity that many children faced on the weekends. They were receiving free breakfast and lunch at school but what happened on the weekends?

Food Bank staff partnered with parents at Eckstein Middle School and started the program with just 15 kids. They would supply a pack filled with enough nutritious food for one child to eat at home over the weekend and not worry about their next meal. By the end of that year they had 6 or 7 schools on board!

Today we serve 14 Seattle schools and 700 kids in grades K-12. The foods we include are easy enough for the youngest children to prepare at home for themselves and we’ve worked with nutritionists to ensure that our packs meet nutritional standards – we buy prepared and shelf stable items that include trail mix, apple sauce, mac and cheese cups, shelf stable milks – foods that they enjoy and meet our standards.

How many families utilize it each week?

We serve almost 700 kids in Northeast Seattle, and our numbers are continuing to grow.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love the idea of helping kids who need it. I really believe every child deserve access to healthy food, it’s a human right. I also love connecting with my community and working with parent and staff volunteers, getting feedback about what the kids need. We have an amazing team of volunteers as well that keep this program alive. More volunteers are always welcome!

What is something our community may not know about Packs For Kids?

It’s the most expense per client program we operate because we need to ensure everything is easy for kids to prepare and eat. To achieve this we purchase 90-95% of the food in the packs and our grocery bills are increasing this year, just like everyone else’s. 

In the last calendar year, the cost has increased 20% per child. Without more funding and financial support from our community there is a physical limit to the program.

Tell us about securing 263 laptops from Interconnection for kids in 2021!

It’s such a fantastic partnership! I helped coordinate with all schools we work with on our Packs For Kids program to get counts for how many students needed laptops. Interconnection in Seattle really understood our needs and there was no barrier to access, families did not need to give any personal information or prove eligibility to receive a computer. They ended up donating 263 laptops to local school children in grades K-12! 

Interconnection is committed to digital equity and runs a store in Wallingford. Please check them out online or at their store and support how you can.

Meet Lena our Food Access Program Coordinator

Lena Kabeshita is one of the Food Bank’s three new team members who came to us through our partnership with AmeriCorps. She joined us in October 2021 to manage our two satellite pantries at North Seattle College and Mercy Magnuson and is such an important part of the work we do for the north Seattle community!

Originally from Illinois, Lena was living and interning in Yakima before coming to Seattle. She is a recent college graduate with a major in soil and crop science and a minor in women and gender studies. 

What is your role at the Food Bank?

I am the Pantry Program Coordinator and I manage our two offsite pantries – North Seattle College on Tuesday nights and Mercy Magnuson place on Wednesday afternoons. I’m responsible for ordering food for the pantries, bringing the food over to each pantry and making sure they are running smoothly. I also coordinate 8-12 volunteers per week to help run the pantries.

Why were these satellite pantries created?

The satellite pantries pre-date the pandemic and were created to serve areas of need in North Seattle where there’s not a food bank nearby or affordable grocery stores. The North Seattle College Pantry was intended to support food insecure students at the college, but it has expanded beyond the student community and grown overall to fill a need among additional North Seattle households. In January 2022 we served 50 student households, 9 staff households, and 98 community member households. 

We purchase food specifically for these pantries each week, then set up and break down on Tuesdays and Wednesdays but each runs a little differently. North Seattle College offers prepacked food in bags and then shoppers choose their protein with a drive-through and walk-up service style. Magnuson is more of a shopping model where guests walk through and choose what they want for the week.

How many families do you serve per week? 

In January at Magnuson we served 320 households for the month and in North Seattle we served 229 households for the month. I want to give a big shout out to the volunteers who dedicate time each week to support these pantries. Their work is invaluable, and I couldn’t operate without them!

One of our regular volunteers at our Magnuson pantry passed away in February. His name was John Tuttle and he had been volunteering at Magnuson for the last year. I want to thank him for all his hard work and dedication to our cause, he will be missed by all of us.

Meet Dave, our Beloved Food Bank Greeter!

When did you start at the Food Bank?

I started in January 2020 as a checkout person inside the Food Bank. Covid-19 hit Seattle shortly after that and we shifted operations outside. I was asked to be a greeter and chat with shoppers while they waited. It was getting to be spring, and I loved being outside with people.

Tell us about being a greeter at the Food Bank?

The people here is the best part. I know the community well now – after two years of seeing the same people our regulars become my friends. I’ve gained about 2000-3000 friends working here! When people don’t come one week, I miss them. 

I love speaking to them while they wait and keeping them company. Sometimes it’s standing in the rain for hours. I often like to walk around and sing and one of our customers says she comes just to hear me sing. 

I’ve always been a customer service-oriented person and simply enjoy talking to people. Previously I owned a construction company where I would rebuild houses for bed and breakfasts in Tacoma and Auburn. I moved to Seattle in 2011 after meeting my wife through an accidental text and phone call where we just started talking.

What do you enjoy about the Food Bank staff?

The directors have a gift when it comes to hiring and the staff fits so well together, it’s like a family.  I often am told how much I’m missed when I’m not there. The staff is so close because everyone has a common goal of making sure people’s needs are met. A lot of our shoppers are homeless and struggling, they are vulnerable and need someone to talk to. Everyone here understands that.

Every part of our team must work together because we’re dealing with so many parts that are interconnected. From food purchasing and donations to getting the food here, to the sorters who check for quality, to stalking our shelves. From there we have volunteers who shop for people and they need to be picky and not just throw things together you want the person receiving the food to enjoy it and to feed their family with pride. 

This is where volunteers come in; without them this full range of operations would not happen at the level it does. They are so appreciated. 

What else do you want people to know?

I feel like it’s my calling, to make people feel loved. Everyone has to eat, and we are here to help people from all walks of life. Our team knows how to meet people where they are without judgement, it’s been amazing to be a part of. 

Our older customers have so many stories. They talk with me and want to share and be heard, their stories are so rich. I feel honored to be a part of it.

Meet our Farm Manager Shanelle Donaldson & the Bloom Project

Shanelle Donaldson is the rockstar manager behind the Food Bank’s rooftop garden program and has some incredible projects up her sleeve this spring! 

Shanelle started at the Food Bank in October 2020 taking over managing our rooftop garden where we grow seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs year-round to feed the community. With all that she does for us she’s also operated her own business, an urban farm called Percussion Farms, since 2016. It’s a backyard farm model where people donate space and she grows food in Seattle’s Central District, Beacon Hill and in Auburn. Food that’s grown is distributed to food banks and the local BIPOC community. 

In 2021 Shanelle partnered with the Doorway Project to found an urban farming job training program called the Bloom Project, dedicated to educating youth about how to grow food in an urban setting. Last year they had enough funding for one cohort and after receiving grant funding they will be able to offer two cohorts that will each run for 10 weeks in 2022 and in 2023!

The program is offered to 4-5 students per session ages 18-24 and focuses on black and indigenous youth, as well as those experiencing housing insecurity and living in youth care and transitional housing.  The students are paid $20 per hour for 10 hours of training per week and get to experience everything hands-on. They will spend 5 hours at the University District Food Bank and the other 5 hours at Doorway Project where they will work on building an urban garden and growing space. They will learn about food systems, how food is distributed, all about worms and composting from the folks at the Tilth Alliance, a beekeeper will teach them about bees and pollinators, and a local forager will take them foraging in the city

Additionally, art will play a big role in the curriculum offering a creative and healing experience. This includes painting beehives, writing poetry, making lip balm from flowers they grow, making vegetable dyes from veggies they grow, making seed paper, and building a mason beehive.  

After the 10 weeks they hope to place all students in urban agriculture jobs including at farmers markets, with beekeepers and at urban farms like Percussion. Shanelle hopes to open their eyes and minds into the world of urban agriculture which is filled with opportunities they may have never known about. 

Shanelle is also in the process of converting the Food Bank’s rooftop raised beds from milk crates to larger wood and metal beds that are deeper allowing for more growing options. We can’t wait for you to see it when it’s completed later this spring!

Help Us Grow the Food Bank Community in 2022!

We couldn’t serve the families of Northeast Seattle without the support of the University District Food Bank’s amazing volunteers and donors! We have so many incredible people donating money, volunteering their time to help at the Food Bank, organizing community drives and helping to plan events like our Fall auction and more.
Even with all of this help every year we have people who move away, donate to a different cause or just get busy and no longer have the time to spend with us. To keep our community strong we’re asking you to join us in 2022 and help us grow!
Here’s few easy ways to help:

  1. Sign up for our e-newsletters at and share our next one with three friends, encouraging them to sign up as well and stay connected
  2. Text three people and ask them to join you in volunteering or donating any monetary amount they can this year
  3. Post on Instagram and Facebook about getting involved, donating or attending one of our upcoming events

All of this helps to spread the word and grow our reach in the community so we may continue to operate and help more families!