Thanks to a new program, more than 100 students in Jasper County schools are less likely to feel hunger pangs over weekends.
BackPack Buddies, which recently started at Ridgeland and Hardeeville elementary schools, is an initiative of the hunger-relief charity called Feeding America, which provides children living in poverty with food for the weekend.
The program has more than quadrupled the number of students it feeds since it began in October, but that still is not enough, said Glenn Neff, a volunteer who helped create the program in Jasper County.
"Our only desire would be to be able to cover 100 percent of those kids that are on the food assistance programs and need the food over the weekend," Neff said. "We would do that in Jasper County tomorrow if we had the money, because the needs in Jasper are twice as big or maybe three times as big as they are elsewhere."
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The typical backpack contains three pounds of easy-to-prepare, nutritious food, including two cereal boxes, two canned entrees, two shelf-stable dairy items, one snack and two fruit items, according to Miriam Langley, vice president of communications at the Lowcountry Food Bank, which supplies the food.
Similar programs exist across South Carolina and the United States. The Lowcountry Food Bank helps deliver backpacks to 37 other schools in the 10 coastal counties it serves, Langley said.
Beaufort County has successful BackPack Buddies programs on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, according to Neff.
He hopes the Jasper County program has similar success.
"The need is alarming; it's just heart-wrenching to go into this county to see what exists and, even more, what doesn't exist," Neff said. "Right now our main thrust is to get donations to really be able to reach more kids."
A parent liaison at Hardeeville Elementary said teachers often report that students come to their classrooms unable to focus and complaining of hunger. That is where the BackPack Buddies program comes in, Felecia Bethea said.
"When the kids come to get the backpacks, they are very excited and are giving us big hugs and saying, 'Thank you, thank you,' " Bethea said. "I think we are going to see the difference in the children and their academics. I do believe it is going to have a big effect."
Between the two elementary schools in Jasper County, 115 students receive backpacks. Neff said students are eligible if they are part of the federal free and reduced-cost lunch program.
About 90 percent of the student bodies at each school qualify for lunch assistance, according to S.C. Department of Education data. That means the school cafeterias are the primary source of food for more than 1,000 students, out of about 1,300.
But many of those students don't have access to food over the weekends, let alone nutricious food, Neff said.
Because all children can't be served, the school social workers decide which students will receive the backpacks by talking with parents and learning the families' backgrounds.
Planning for the program began in November 2012 through eight area churches, Neff said. It is now housed under the Antioch Educational Center, which partners with the Lowcountry Food Bank to supply the food.
It costs $150 to provide food for a single student throughout the year, according to the Lowcountry Food Bank's Langley.
"We are super-excited to now be in Jasper County because we have really been wanting to expand to that area," Langley said. "So many folks don't realize how many children are in need of something like this, and they don't really think about weekend hunger for children."
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