When the final school bell rings on Fridays at three Hilton Head elementary schools, about 220 of the students sling special backpacks over their shoulders as part of the Backpack Buddies program.
Inside the backpacks are two nutritional meals for the weekend at home: two cereal boxes, two pieces of fresh fruit, two proteins such as Chef Boyardee, two puddings and one granola bar.
This group of youngsters at Hilton Head School for the Creative Arts, Hilton Head Elementary Baccalaureate School and the Early Childhood Center receive government subsidized breakfast and lunch five days a week, but sometimes have little at home to eat on weekends.
The Hunger Coalition of the Lowcountry on the island, which sponsors Backpack Buddies, has been relying on grants from civic organizations, individual donations, and funding from local churches and synagogues since its founding in 2010.
How can it be that children are hungry on an island that ranks as one of the top resort destinations in the country?
“Hunger does not stop at the bridge to Hilton Head, where many parents may be making minimum wage,” said Coalition chair Janet Weingarten. “One in five children in America live in households that are food insecure all or part of the year. The children in the Backpack program are part of that number.”
Carole Galli, former board member and advocate-volunteer for the Coalition, said the percentage of students on subsidized breakfast and lunch is “enormous.” From the beginning, “We knew the problem was huge,” she said.
The goal is to grow the program to 260 by January, and 300 by the end of next year. Five years ago when it began, there were 50 kids taking home the extra nutritional boost for the weekend. The original operating budget was $20,000; it’s now $50,000. Costs for providing these students their weekend meals are about $185 per child per year.
This concerted effort didn’t happen without a lot of volunteer help – and money.
There are about 100 Coalition volunteers who pick up food, sort it and deliver it to schools, among other duties. Social workers at each school make sure every child on their list gets his or her backpack on Friday afternoon.
Weingarten added, “Feedback we get from schoolteachers and social workers tells us that by providing weekend food, students are coming to school on Monday more alert and ready to learn.”
The coalition also maintains “snack closets” at elementary schools, two soup kitchens and a summer food program in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Lowcountry.
Three fundraisers for the Coalition and Backpack Buddies are scheduled in November: Mary Green Men’s Chorale “Songs of the Sea” concert at Holy Family Catholic Church on Nov. 11; CRAB Team Tennis Challenge at Palmetto Dunes Tennis Center, Nov. 13-15; and “meal coupons” at four local restaurants, sponsored by the Unanimity Masonic Lodge 418 through Nov. 30.
Backpack Buddies of Bluffton has just completed its fourth year of service, serving 255 students at three elementary schools. The volunteer non-profit organization Crossroads Community Support Services sponsors that program.
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer living in Bluffton.