Program helps feed students on weekends

When most people think of hungry children, the tourist-friendly shores of Beaufort County don't come to mind. But the truth is even in a beautiful resort town such as Hilton Head Island, children go hungry at times -- especially on the weekends, when they aren't being fed at school.

Thanks to the Charleston-based Lowcountry Food Bank, school administrators and a group of caring citizens, at least 50 Hilton Head children won't go without that basic necessity on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Hilton Head Island Hunger and Homelessness Coalition joined forces with the food bank and administrators at the three public elementary schools on Hilton Head -- Hilton Head Island Elementary School, Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts and Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center -- to offer the Backpack Buddies program on Hilton Head. The coalition began feeding children on the island in September. The program already serves several schools in the Beaufort area but is not yet available in Bluffton.

"You hear about children starving all over the world, which is horrible, but we have children right here," said Janet Weingarten, chairwoman of the Hilton Head backpack program.

Backpack Buddies is an initiative of the domestic hunger-relief charity Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks across the country, including the one in Charleston.

The Lowcountry Food Bank provides backpacks and healthy, child-friendly, shelf-sustainable food to about 2,300 of the neediest children at 53 different schools in coastal South Carolina through the backpack program, according to Lowcountry Food Bank director of development and programs Ilze Astad. The program benefits students at 12 schools in Beaufort County.

Once a month volunteers pick up food from a Lowcountry Food Bank storage facility in Yemassee and deliver it to St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church on Hilton Head for storage.

Volunteers pack the food in plastic bags at the church and deliver them to the schools. Then volunteers go to the schools every Friday to put the plastic bags into the backpacks. School personnel distribute the backpacks to the students every Friday.

The empty backpacks are returned to school Monday or Tuesday and held for repacking the following Friday.

Each area's backpack program is administered by a community partner, such as the coalition on Hilton Head. Astad said Seaside Vineyard is its partner in Beaufort, where volunteers pack and deliver food to Beaufort Elementary School, Broad River Elementary School, James J. Davis Early Childhood Education Center, Lady's Island Elementary School, Lady's Island Middle School, Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary School, St. Helena Elementary School, Whale Branch Elementary School and Shell Point Elementary School.

Astad said the food bank selects schools based on data from the National School Lunch Program, which helps children buy school lunches. School administrators help the food bank determine who the neediest children are based on a variety of factors, including physical well-being; behavioral attributes, such as rushing to food lines; signs of malnutrition, such as extreme thinness, chronically dried/cracked lips and itchy eyes; school performance; excessive absences; short attention span and inability to concentrate.

"It's really sad that in this day and age in the United States that we have to use this checklist to identify children that are food insecure," Astad said.

The Hilton Head program includes volunteers from Congregation Beth Yam, St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church, as well as other individuals in the community.

Weingarten said her group would like to provide food for 100 children by next school year and eventually go beyond that. The group also would like to expand to Bluffton.

For now, the Hilton Head group is working to achieve its 501(c)3 nonprofit status and is looking for grants to expand the program.

"Childhood hunger is just widespread in this area," Astad said. "At no point is that OK."