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Backpack Buddies: A network of quiet helpers feeding Bulloch County's children in need

Recently celebrating 17 years of service in Bulloch County, Backpack Buddies serves elementary and middle school children in need with extra food to take home over the weekend, packed inside in their bookbags. Compassionate collaboration between schools, churches, and Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia make this vital program a possibility in our community.

According to the most recent data from Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, 1 in 5 children face hunger in Bulloch County. That means that in a typical elementary school classroom, anywhere from 3-5 children are facing food insecurity.

Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as: the lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity is associated with numerous adverse social and health outcomes and is increasingly considered a critical public health issue. Key drivers of food insecurity include unemployment, poverty, and income shocks, which can prevent adequate access to food. Alternatively, multiple interventions have been shown to reduce food insecurity, including participation in food assistance programs and broader societal-level improvements in economic stability.

Shopping for BB | Photo Courtesy Susan Allen

As one of our community's food assistance programs, Backpack Buddies meets an important need for elementary and middle school children every Friday, with food discreetly tucked away in their school backpacks to carry home for the weekend. Through dedication, hard work, and community effort, Backpack Buddies currently serves 425 children in Bulloch County schools. 

"Providing food to children who may not have enough to eat over the weekend is a wonderful initiative," shared Keith Wilkey, LMSW, Director of Social Work Services at Bulloch County Schools. "Sadly, some children in our community only receive one or two meals a day, which are provided by the school. It is reassuring to see that a partnership between the school and religious organizations is in place to ensure that children in need do not have to go hungry.”

How Backpack Buddies came to be in Bulloch

Spearheading the program back in 2007 was Susan Allen, Minister of Children at First Baptist Church Statesboro. That year, the Southern Baptist Denomination was focusing on hunger for their annual children's ministry day, when during a conference Allen heard about the Backpack Buddies program in another community. She then did some research and contacted a local elementary school principal for opinions.

Susan Allen, of First Baptist Church of Statesboro who spearheaded Backpack Buddies in 2007. 

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and the school was ready to partner with FBC immediately. Allen says, “We began by having our children participate in a scavenger hunt to gather the first collection of food for the program.” 

They then purchased backpacks and had a ministry team pack and deliver the bags weekly to the school. It began as a pilot program with just one elementary school and ran from February 2007 to the end of the school year. “The program was a huge hit and word spread through the principals, and by the next fall, we had programs in numerous schools and shortly after had programs in all of our elementary schools in the county."

'One less thing to worry about'

According to No Kid Hungry, food insecurity affects concentration, memory, mood, and motor skills —all very much needed in order for a child to be successful in school. Wilkey says that many parents struggling to make ends meet have expressed relief, saying "This is one less thing I have to worry about.” He also shared, “Our students also feel the burden of their parents' struggles, and some of them feel like they are helping to alleviate the burden by bringing extra food home on the weekends and during breaks.”

Wilkey says the school counselors act as a bridge between the students, parents and partnering churches. Counselors can receive Backpack Buddy requests from teachers, parents, or a student. Typically, teachers will help to identify these students by observing student behavior in the cafeteria and listening for clues that the child may be hungry throughout the school day.

Synovus collects donations for the program

Shantell Henry, Counselor at Southeast Brooklet Middle School, says that once a student is identified, a permission form is sent home stating the importance of a healthy balanced diet and how nutrition impacts learning and behavior with information about Backpack Buddies. They provide the families with the opportunity to accept or decline. Henry says the students and families are very grateful for the extra food over the weekend.

She says, "As a school counselor, it brings me great joy in knowing our community is able to provide extra food for the students of Bulloch County Schools to have over the weekend and/or long breaks. The food in the bag may not always be the student's preferred food or snack, but it does provide the student with what they may need. The organization and communication from the local church that assists with the Backpack Buddies makes the process work effortlessly. I am grateful that our community is able to provide this opportunity to our students.” 

Mandy Boyles, Counselor from Nevils Elementary, helps identify children who may benefit from the program. She works with the churches in the community who sponsor the program, then helps with delivery to students on Fridays. She shares, “This a great service to our students and their families within our community. We have several students who look forward to Fridays, because it is the day they receive their Backpack Buddies.” 

FBC delivers BB food to its partner school Julia P. Bryant Elementary | Photo Courtesy Susan Allen

A community effort

Jenna Kniss, Agency Relations Coordinator of Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, states there are currently 15 partner agencies in Bulloch County, six of those are backpack programs. She says, “Agency partners are able to receive food from us up to twice a week for their distributions, with our backpack programs distributing to schools/students weekly. They can receive deliveries or come to our partner marketplace to ‘shop' for the products that are best for their agency."

Kniss says, “Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia distributes food throughout our 21-county service area, including Bulloch County, in a multitude of ways. Our main way is through agency partnerships with food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and backpack programs. Our agencies help support our mission by being the boots on the ground in our communities and distributing the food directly to neighbors in need."

"The main way Second Harvest supports our agency partners is by providing food products," she continued. "Another strength of joining Second Harvest as an agency partner is that we are a part of the Feeding America and Feeding Georgia networks. By being a part of these networks, we are able to receive additional food outside of donations in the form of government commodities through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Georgia Nutritional Assistance Program (GNAP). GNAP is the best program for our backpack programs, as it is child-friendly foods for at-risk households with children."

Helpers at First Presbyterian Church packing bags for Backpack Buddies 

Around 13 churches in Bulloch County are involved in the Backpack Buddies program. Coordinators at the churches shop, help facilitate packing with help from church members and community volunteers, then deliver to the schools where the school counselors get the food into children's backpacks. 

“Food insecurity is a growing issue in Bulloch County, and the churches and partnering organizations have been instrumental in alleviating some of the stress associated with not having enough food,” Wilkey said.

Lauren Rogers, Backpack Buddies Coordinator at First Presbyterian Church, says they serve 75 children each week identified as food insecure at Mill Creek Elementary and STEAM. Through their agency partnership, many food items are obtained through the Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia. Rogers shares that the children get breakfast and lunch at school but may not have enough food to get through the weekend,

“As a Matthew 25 church, First Presbyterian Church is committed to helping eradicate systemic poverty. Providing these children with food weekly is one way we can do this within our community,” she shared. “Backpack Buddies is a truly special ministry that means a lot to me personally and means a lot to the members of our church. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve these children, and to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”

First Baptist members packing bags for Backpack Buddies

At First Baptist Church, co-coordinators Tiffany Holzman and Amy Scott are responsible for their partner school, Julia P. Bryant. Holzman and Scott have been in charge of Backpack Buddies at FBC for around 5 years.

Holzman, who says the program 'has her heart, shared, "We love the program. It's difficult to think about kids going hungry over the weekend."

Currently, they serve around 45-50 children. Holzman and Scott shop at Second Harvest Food Bank, and what they can't get there, they buy elsewhere using donations from members. On breaks and holidays, extra food is sent home for the children and their families. Once a month, they try to send home a jar of peanut butter that will last through the month.

Denise Lynch and her husband Steve Lynch, co-coordinators for Backpack Buddies at Pittman Park United Methodist Church, say they service anywhere from 49-53 children weekly at Langston Chapel Elementary and Middle Schools. Lynch says the school counselors are wonderful to work with and let her know how many bags per week they need. She does the shopping at Second Harvest Food Bank, then the church members pack the bags and deliver to the schools. 

Members of Pittman Park Methodist Church who help pack for Backpack Buddies weekly.

Occasionally, she says the food bank may not have exactly what they need. If this happens, she says church members are always willing to make generous donations to help out. Lynch has been involved with Backpack Buddies for around 2 years and shares that she enjoys working with this ministry and feels like children should never go hungry.

She says, “It makes my heart feel good, and through this ministry, I feel it lets the children know we love them and Jesus loves them too.”

The collaboration and contributions of school administration and faculty, local churches, and Second Harvest make Backpack Buddies possible in Bulloch County, and for this, many families are grateful. Susan Allen says, “It’s hard for us to imagine how many children in our community have food insecurity, and I’m thankful that the people of Bulloch county care and are committed to helping through this program.” 

If you would like to learn more about Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia click here.

Grice Connect would like to express gratitude to the quiet helpers of our community who work tirelessly to make Bulloch County a better place. Food insecurity is often a shame-filled need, that often goes overlooked, especially in children. Help meet our community need by volunteering or donating to local churches, local food banks, or Second Harvest Food Bank of Coastal Georgia.