Backpack Buddies began as a pilot program at a single Liberty school last February, and it soon will expand to serve children in all of the district’s primary schools.
Two Frank Long Elementary School teachers enlisted the United Way of the Coastal Empire to locally launch the national program, which sends meals for the weekend home with needy students.
It began with 34 Frank Long students receiving bags and, with the help of sponsors and students at Bradwell Institute and Liberty County High School, the program consistently has served about 376 children in recent months.
Soon, about 575 students will be served when the program expands to Waldo Pafford, Button Gwinnett and Jordye Bacon elementary schools and the Liberty County Pre-K Center.
“Backpack Buddies has been a tremendous help to our children this year,” Frank Long Principal Judy Hellgren said. “Our students look forward to getting the wonderful treats each week, and I think it encourages them and gives them a sense of healthy food, and I think it’s important to teach them.”
She added that the school has a high percentage of students classified as homeless, and many of them also are in the program.
“I do know that the kids who are in the program, they’re very enthusiastic about getting it, so I think it’s something for them to look forward to,” she said, adding that she’s glad to see the program expand to all Liberty elementary schools.
And that’s what drives the program, according to Jennifer Darsey, executive director of the United Way of the Coastal Empire Liberty County office, which administers the operation locally.
“We think about the fact that there are a lot of kids living in hotels, living in cars and living in homes with no power,” Darsey said. “One of our main goals with the program is to always provide food products that can be immediately eaten by the child and do not have to be prepared by the adult because some children are latch-key kids, some parents work the weekend and some parents are just absentee parents.
“So we’re very careful with how we design the program in that these are all food items that the child can eat on his or her own,” she said.
According to an October free- and reduced-price lunch report from the Liberty County school-nutrition office, 67 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. In elementary schools alone, 2,802 of 5,011 students met the criteria for free lunch.
But not all free-lunch recipients benefit from the program; students are discreetly selected by their teachers for participation.
Funding to expand the program will come from United Way grant allocations from funds raised in Liberty County during the nonprofit’s fall campaign.
Darsey estimates that food costs alone will run about $5,500 per month, and about half of that still will come from sponsors, including the local high schools and several churches.
Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer said she sees two-fold benefits to the program.
“Teachers report that they have seen improvement in student performance and ability to concentrate since providing the backpacks,” Scherer said. “It also has greatly increased the awareness of our high-school students to know that there are younger students in their own county that are going hungry. They want to do more and more for them.”
And upperclassmen aren’t just sponsoring primary schools. Life-skills students at Liberty County High School each week volunteer to pack the bags as part of the volunteer corps that makes the program possible.
“The Backpack Buddy program is going amazingly well,” Darsey said, adding that more food items will fill backpacks in coming weeks.
Among the changes, recipients will get pop-top chicken-noodle soup instead of Chef Boyardee meal cups.
Darsey said she has heard some criticism of the program, namely that the meals put children at risk for childhood obesity.
But for the program to work, the foods must be able to survive without refrigeration, and the child should be able to do all necessary preparation. In addition, Darsey said U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines and research on how other agencies implement the program help determine which items to include.
“If we divide it into two meals over two days, so Saturday and Sunday, it’s 786 calories per meal — even with the snacks — so 786 calories is not going to make a kid fat, especially a child who’s starving,” Darsey said.
UW Liberty advisory board member John Scherer, husband to the superintendent, said the group also is in the process of determining whether it is cost-effective to continue making bulk purchases from Sam’s Club or whether the school system’s food provider could deliver.
“It may work, and it may not,” John Scherer said. “But at least we’re going to find out based on a specified menu what they can provide at what price. It could be cost-effective, and obviously labor effective.”
Darsey assured that the program now has the funding to provide for about 575 students even if they must continue trips to Sam’s Club — but she added that the route presents some logistical challenges, such as food storage and transport.
The bigger challenge, she said, is finding volunteers who can help with distribution.