Marilyn Mauch, HILLTOP Award winner

When Marilyn Mauch reflects on her childhood in Berkeley, Calif., she delights in recalling the meals she received from neighbors who knew that her family was struggling to make ends meet.

In Mauch’s home, dinner on most nights was rice paired with government-issued canned soup. There was meat just once a week, on Sundays. So, it was at a neighbor’s house that she first tasted tomato and avocado.

“I just thought ‘This is wonderful, I wish I could eat like this all the time,’” Mauch said. “That’s the thing that I most remember. People gave me food.”

Decades later and inspired by that kindness, Mauch, 83, launched the Portland Backpack Lunch Program to provide two breakfasts and two lunches every week to Northeast Portland school children, who receive free lunch. The program is intended to help prevent children from going without food on weekends.

“They may be in a family where there are so many stresses that they can not always provide the stability that the kid is needing,” Mauch said.

Mauch launched the program in 2008 after retiring from a career as an applied research psychologist in the U.S. Government Accountability Office and moving to Portland from the San Francisco Bay Area.

It began as a small project through her church, Fremont United Methodist. In its first year, the bagged lunch program served 10 children at Woodlawn School. Today, more than 225 students at Woodlawn, King and Harvey Scott schools and the Albina Head Start - Tina Clegg. The program also has grown into a community event, with companies, schools and organizations, including Nike, the Cub Scouts and Concordia University, donating food and helping to stuff backpacks for the school kids. Mauch typically speaks to the volunteers about hunger during those packing sessions, delivering a message about how hard it is for children to concentrate in school if they are hungry. The volunteers also are invited to write and stuff notes of encouragement into the sacks.

“The food program is in essence a vehicle for sending a message of our caring and support,” Winona McGann wrote in her letter nominating Mauch for a HILLTOP Award. “The program wants children to thrive and become all that they can be.”

Added Mauch: “Kids need to know that the community cares for them.”

Although Mauch retired from the Portland Backpack Lunch Program in January, the program will continue without her. It will add another school next year.

Mauch, meanwhile, hasn’t slowed her volunteer work. She now splits her time between Portland and Salem, where she lobbies state legislators to create tenant protection and rent control laws.