The buddy system

Milk, beans, cereal, fruit and other items sit on a table for Backback Buddies.
Milk, beans, cereal, fruit and other items sit on a table for Backback Buddies. Sarah Welliver/The Island Packet

About 80 Bluffton children won't have to go hungry on the weekends thanks to several caring individuals and a program called Backpack Buddies.

An initiative of the domestic hunger-relief charity Feeding America, Backpack Buddies strives to provide healthy food to needy children so they can eat on the weekends, when they aren't being fed at school.

As a member of Feeding America, the Lowcountry Food Bank in Charleston is a big part of that push. The food bank provides the backpacks as well as healthy, child-friendly food to the neediest children in coastal South Carolina, according to Ilze Astad of the food bank.

Community partners administer the program in various locations. The Hilton Head Island Hunger and Homelessness Coalition coordinates the program for Hilton Head Island. Seaside Vineyard Fellowship handles the Beaufort area. And the nonprofit Crossroads Community Support Services recently launched the program in Bluffton.

"We're really looking to grow it and to try to get a grasp on childhood hunger in this area," Crossroads chairwoman Sue Kroupa said. "We'd like to put ourselves out of business."

Crossroads is the local mission field of Grace Coastal Church in Okatie. Kroupa and her team of volunteers organized the first Bluffton distribution for Sept. 16. The program serves students at Red Cedar Elementary School and Michael C. Riley Elementary School.

Beaufort area coordinator Heidi Walker said her program serves about 490 children at the following schools: Lady's Island Elementary, St. Helena Elementary, Beaufort Elementary, Shell Point Elementary, Broad River Elementary, Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary and Whale Branch Elementary schools and James J. Davis Early Childhood Education Center.

The Hilton Head program serves 120 students at the following schools: Hilton Head Island Elementary School, Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts and Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center. Last year they were only able to feed 50 children at those schools.

"It really exceeded our expectations," Hilton Head chairwoman Janet Weingarten said. "And it really is because of the support that we've received from the community."

Although the community partners coordinate each area's program, numerous individuals and groups come together to get the jobs done. Volunteers come from variety of sources including Congregation Beth Yam, St. Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church, All Saints Episcopal Church, Waters Edge, Temple Oseh Shalom, Lord of Life Lutheran Church, Iglesia Vida, Christ Church and Carson Realty.

Volunteers pick up food from a Lowcountry Food Bank storage facility, pack it in plastic bags and deliver the bags to participating schools. They return to the schools every Friday to put the plastic bags into 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.

"Everybody wants to be able to help the children in their own community," Weingarten said. "To know that there's ... a program in Bluffton really gives us a lot of comfort."