Liz Baker met the fifth-grade girl while tutoring students at Moon Lake Elementary in Mentone, on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. Every day the girl saved her snack for her younger brother because they never had snacks at home.
Still other students ate everything on their plates for breakfast and lunch, plus whatever the other classmates gave them. They saved snacks for little brothers and sisters at home. And on Monday, they came back to school starving, ready to eat breakfast.
Liz wondered about that. During the week, these kids received free breakfast and lunch, but what happened on the weekends? Did they eat at all on Saturday?
Questions like that are why Liz teamed up with her church, St. Joseph’s on the Mountain Episcopal, and the Food Bank of North Alabama to make sure all of the students in her town come to school on Monday ready to learn.
Her church partnered with the Food Bank of North Alabama to help offset some of the costs of a backpack program— a program where school counselors and teachers give students in need packages of food to take home and eat over the weekend. These programs started popping up across the state a few years ago and have provided weekend meals to children who don’t have enough food at home.
Many of the programs are funded by local churches, nonprofits and businesses who then supply much of the food from the Food Bank of North Alabama and area grocery stores. Asbury United Methodist Church runs many such programs at Madison City Schools. Sally Warden, a church member, is the facilitator for these programs. While Asbury does receive donations from the church and surrounding community, the bulk of food for the backpack program comes from the Food Bank of North Alabama.
“We never have any problem getting support for this program because hungry children just tug at your heartstrings,” said Sally.
Child hunger is a growing issue in North Alabama, and the consequences of going hungry extend far beyond a hurting stomach. Children who consistently go without food can have significant developmental delays, impacting their success in school and thus the course of their lives.
The numbers are staggering. One in every four children in Alabama faces some kind of food insecurity at home. That means more than 60,000 children struggle to afford all the meals they need to grow and learn, and that’s just in North Alabama. Up to 73 percent of students in Madison County schools alone need a free or reduced lunch—one of the criteria counselors use to determine if a child has enough to eat at home.
But that’s all changing with the backpack program.
Supplemental, two-day meal kits are anonymously put into the child’s backpack before they leave on Friday. At some schools, the bus drivers give them to the children as they exit the bus. At others, the counselors put them in the backpacks while the children are out at recess. In all cases, discretion with distribution and dignity of the child are valued. Each kit costs roughly $4.50 to provide, according to the Food Bank of North Alabama. Most of the kits contain ten items, including two pop-top meals with protein, two individually packaged bowls of cereal, two cartons of shelf-stable milk, two cartons of juice and two fruit items, such as a fruit cup or applesauce.
There are several ways for interested community members to become involved in fighting child hunger through backpack programs. One way is to begin volunteering with a local backpack program; another is to start a program with their own church or nonprofit. Interested persons can view a list of current backpack programs and their sponsors on the Food Bank’s website here.
Community members are also invited to attend the Food Bank’s Child Hunger Summit on March 2nd at First Baptist Church in Huntsville. At this free event, attendees will gain a deeper understanding of how hunger impacts North Alabama’s children and connect with others who are working actively to address it.
Sessions will explore which programs are already providing much needed meals and where we can expand our efforts to have an even greater impact. Anyone interested in addressing child hunger is welcome, but keynotes will highlight backpack programs, summer lunches and other school-based programs.
The event is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Registration and additional information are available here.