For the past eight months, BackPack Buddies volunteers have sent 80 low-income students at Michael C. Riley and Red Cedar elementary schools home for the weekend with backpacks full of food.
But with summer vacation fast approaching, the Bluffton-based BackPack Buddies wrestled with a question: How could it keep providing food to needy kids whose identities it never knows?
"Once they leave school for the summer, we don't have any connection with them," said Sue Kroupa, who organizes the elementary school program with her husband, Ken.
So starting June 7, the students will be eligible for a new program through the Farmers Market of Bluffton. The kids will receive vouchers for at least $10 they can redeem for tokens at the farmers market each week, Kroupa said.
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The tokens will be good only for fresh fruit and vegetables, according to Kim Viljac, who runs the farmers market.
Red Cedar and M.C. Riley schools were chosen for the program's first year because their student bodies are among the poorest in the area, Kroupa said. Funding for the summer program is largely coming from heating and air conditioning company Covert Aire, which will donate $100 for every system installation and $10 for every service call in May to BackPack Buddies, Kroupa said.
There are about 50 BackPack Buddies programs across the Lowcountry that reach about 2,000 students, said Miriam Coombes of the Lowcountry Food Bank, which sponsors Bluffton's program with Crossroads Community Support Services.
Students with the greatest need are selected by school social workers. Volunteers never know the names of children they help.
During this school year, volunteers from at least six local churches and two businesses have raised about $20,000, enough to buy cereal, pasta, granola bars and other basics for 40 kids at each school.
Organizers hope such help will come through for the summer program, which requires more participation from students and their parents.
"It's an experiment," Kroupa said.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.