Last year, 525 elementary-school children in Liberty County were served by the Backpack Buddies program, which ensures children who receive free and reduced-price school meals don’t go hungry over the weekends. This year, even more meals will be packed because the program is expanding to include 75 middle-school students and 20 Head Start preschoolers.
“We are expanding the program because there is a need at the middle-school level,” said Jennifer Darsey, director of the United Way of the Coastal Empire’s Liberty office.
Sixty-six percent of Liberty County public-school students were eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program as of Oct. 31, 2012, according to the most recent data posted on the Georgia Department of Education’s website. A total of 10,190 children were enrolled in the program, but 5,350 of them were considered eligible to receive free meals and 1,458 were eligible to receive reduced-price meals, for a total of 6,808 students who were eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program.
According to the DoE data, 70.3 percent of students at Snelson-Golden were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in 2012. Midway and Lewis Frasier middle schools each had more than 68 percent of students eligible for the federal program.
Backpack Buddies was established in early 2012 at Frank Long Elementary School. By the end of the 2012-13 school year, the program provided weekend meals to students in each elementary school, according to Darsey.
“We have made dramatic improvements to the program, enabling us to give every child two cartons of milk, two 100-percent juices, two fruits, two vegetables, two protein meals — like soups, stews and pasta with meat — and two snacks,” she said.
United Way associate Sarah McLaughlin said the bags are packed with “kid-friendly” food items so even young children can eat the meals without any preparation or assistance. Some children’s parents work two jobs or work odd hours to make ends meet and aren’t home during normal mealtime hours to prepare kids’ meals, McLaughlin said.
Children are referred to the program by their teachers or school social workers through a recommendation form, Darsey said. Once referred, a parental permission form is sent home and a school nurse checks for food allergies.
Darsey said homeless students are placed at the top of the Backpack Buddies referral list.
She said the schools, along with other community organizations, have lent their support to Backpack Buddies.
“Our primary means of support is monetary,” Bradwell Institute Principal Scott Carrier said. “We donate $600 per month to the Backpack Buddy program. This money comes from different organizations within the school. Many club sponsors want the students to understand the importance of giving back to the community. They explain that this is just one way in which we can do this. We are pleased that our students are learning the importance of community involvement.”
Liberty County High School Principal Paula Scott said students in LCHS life-skills classes volunteer to pack the bags of food, and the school offers financial support.
“Several different clubs, organizations and sports teams contribute money every month,” Scott said. “In addition, our staff members contribute financially throughout the school year. We believe it is a very worthwhile program, and we are happy to support it.”
To help Backpack Buddies, people can pledge to the United Way or volunteer their time, McLaughlin said. Donations of plastic bags are needed to pack the meals, she added.
For more information, call 912-368-4282.