Weekends minus hunger

CorrespondentApril 8, 2009 

Weekends and holidays aren't times most of us worry about going hungry. In fact, most of us don't worry about being hungry at all.

So it may surprise you to learn that more than half a million schoolchildren in North Carolina are at risk of not having enough to eat.

They leave school Friday afternoon and may not get another meal until their next school lunch on Monday. Longer school breaks and holidays can be an even greater challenge.

And hunger is costly.

Children who are chronically hungry are more likely to do poorly in school and have a harder time catching up. Kids who don't have adequate diets are also more likely to suffer physical and mental health consequences.

That's why food banks and their supporters in our state are excited about a creative solution to give kids wholesome foods when they're not in school. It's called the BackPack Program.

Here's how it works:

With donations from businesses, foundations, community groups and individuals, food banks buy nutritious, nonperishable foods such as canned baked beans, single-serving boxes of cereal, fruit bowls, granola bars, canned vegetables, soup and pudding cups.

During the week, volunteers fill backpacks with the foods and deliver them to schools and other sites where needy children pick them up before going home at the end of the week. Kids return the empty packs the following week so they can be refilled.

The backpacks are making a difference for thousands of children all over our state.

The Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, for example, is sending backpacks to 42 sites in 10 counties in North and South Carolina in the Charlotte area. The program serves mostly elementary-age children, according to executive director Kay Carter.

The Metrolina program, in existence for 2-1/2 years, is growing, and Carter hopes to have more than 50 programs in place by the time school starts this fall.

Carter hears regularly from school principals, teachers, social workers and even the children themselves.

"One teacher related to us that a child in her school was concerned because school was going to be out for a holiday," Carter said. "The little girl wanted the teacher to help her figure out how far it was from her house to the school. She knew the bus wasn't coming on Friday because of the holiday, and she wanted to walk to school to get her backpack."

The school sent the food home with the child on Thursday.

In another instance, a bus driver told Carter about a little boy who had gotten chicken noodle soup in his backpack and raved about it.

Now volunteers go out of their way to add chicken noodle soup to the boy's backpack.

More information about the program can be found online at www.secondharvestcharlotte.org.

The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina operates a BackPack Program, too. It started serving 30 children in 2005 and now serves 850 children in Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston, Brunswick, Franklin, Moore, New Hanover, Pender and Scotland counties.

Bayer CropScience has been the primary donor to the program since 2006, but the food bank would gladly accept additional support. A list of the items most needed can be found online at www.foodbanknc.org.

Organizations interested in starting a backpack program can contact J. Caprice Brown of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, at 865-3037.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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