While groups like Savannah Feed the Hungry and Manna House work to ease hunger in the wider population, a recent community effort aims to alleviate the problem in a smaller group: school children.
Two teachers at Frank Long Elementary enlisted the help of the United Way of Liberty County to facilitate a local Backpack Buddies pilot program, which launched Feb. 10.
First-year resource teacher Sarah Carrier and longtime teacher Sharon Long identified a need for the program, which sends children home on Fridays with food-filled backpacks. “I started teaching in January, and my first day I had a first-grader crying and saying, ‘I’m hungry,’” Carrier said.
Carrier, who saw the program in action while she was student-teaching in Bulloch County, said at-risk students are selected to receive the backpacks by teacher referral.
The backpacks include juice boxes, fruit cups, granola bars and cheese and crackers — items that are selected for their nutritional value and ease of use.
In the last few weeks, 34 FLE students received the backpacks, thanks to a sponsorship from the Restoration Church. Today, another 20 at FLE will receive bags.
Organizers hope every elementary school in the area will be adopted by the end of the month.
A December report shows that 66 percent of Liberty County School System students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
But according to United Way of Liberty County Executive Director Jennifer Darsey, military dependents frequently qualify for reduced lunch prices. The more telling figure is the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch.
System-wide, 50 percent — or 5,215 of the district’s 10,317 students — meet the free-lunch criteria. At FLE, 63 percent — or 355 out of 560 — qualify for free lunch.
Liberty County High School also is pitching in. Darsey said the school’s clubs chose to make the program their collective philanthropy, and they will begin to provide bags for Liberty Elementary School later this month.
At LES, 53 percent of students meet free meal requirements.
“We’ve gotten a great response …,” Carrier said. “The kids are so excited to get their backpacks on Friday. Every day, they’re saying ‘Do I get my bag today?’”
When Carrier explained the backpack and its contents to one third-grader, he started to cry, she said.
“I said, ‘What’s up, man? Why are you crying?’” she said. “And he said, ‘I get to eat this weekend.’”
Now in its fourth week, Carrier estimates the cost to adopt 50 students would run about $600 per month to provide each student with two meal items, two snacks and some juice for each of the weekend days.
The United Way provides backpacks and quality control for the program, and the owners of the Brantley building on M.L. King Jr. Drive, where the United Way office is located, provided storage space for the food and bag preparation.
To adopt a school, call the United Way at 368-4282 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.