School system staff and church members are piloting a program called "Blessings in a Backpack." Thirty students from each district are taking home on Fridays enough food to give them two breakfasts, two lunches, three dinners and two snacks so that they will not go hungry over the weekend.
"We're serving homeless kids, we're serving kids who may not be homeless but need extra help with food -- they're coming to school hungry," said Kelly Whitmire, homeless liaison for Bartow County Schools. "Our social workers are the ones that are identifying these families, they know the families, they've worked with them, they know that there's a need. They know these kids are coming to school on Monday morning and they're scarfing down their breakfast and they're still hungry, or they're needing an extra lunch, or those kind of things."
"The identification kind of comes [after] you make a home visit, you determine that there's an economic need," said Paula Womack, school social worker for Cartersville City Schools. "Probably yes, they would be on free and reduced lunch. And then we send permission slips home. We've gotten permission slips back from some parents who have said, 'No, I don't need this, there's somebody who needs this more than I do.' But there's definitely a need out there."
The program is being funded through a $5,100 grant from the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia and is set to feed the selected students through Christmas. Womack said the two districts had hoped to launch this program or something similar to it in years past.
"It's something we wanted to start a couple years ago, but we just needed to get the manpower to do it," she said. "We knew that as school social workers, we couldn't do it just by ourselves [along with] the homeless program, truancy and all the other issues we handle in schools. Research has shown that when [students] are not hungry, they're coming to school, they're ready to learn, they're awake, they're alert -- they're going to do much better."
Helping the districts put on the program are members of The Church at the Well and The Bridge, who are buying the food, supplying space in their respective churches for it, packing bags and delivering them each Friday to the schools.
Andy Postell, lead pastor at Church at the Well, said about 20 members of his church have committed themselves to helping with the program, though the responsibilities involved in putting on the effort are dispersed to just a few volunteers each week since only a handful of helpers are needed each time. The church is providing bags for needy students in the Cartersville system and is partnering with Ingles, which is buying the food for the program in bulk.
"I think for our church, [the program] was a good fit," Postell said. "We're a fairly young church, we have a lot of educators in our church, not just in the city schools but the county schools and the private schools. The fact that we are educators and have children, it's just a very natural fit when you talk to them about the fact that there are kids that are going to school in our classrooms with our kids and don't have food to eat.
"I think that kind of surprises people sometimes when they realize that the person sitting next to their child might go hungry all weekend," he added.
Postell and Eric Lee, pastor at The Bridge in Cartersville, said they learned about the need for assisting the schools when Womack and Bartow County Schools Homeless Liaison Eleanor Long spoke at a Bartow Collaborative meeting on the problem of child homelessness and hunger in the county.
"They showed some statistics that were overwhelming to me and said that they had this plan to send food home with those kids on the weekends and were working toward a grant to get it paid for, at least a pilot portion of it paid for, and that they were looking for help," Lee said. "That seemed to me like something anybody would want to do and should want to do, so I told her that our church would absolutely help. When I took it back to our church ... we had several people who contacted me immediately or responded to me in person and said, 'I want to help.'
"If there's anything that a church is going to be doing, it should be helping feed hungry people, particularly hungry children," Lee added. "We've been doing that in the past with other programs in the community, so when this one came up, it was a natural fit for us."
Like Postell's church, Lee and his congregation are partnering with another grocery store, Kroger, as they provide food to students in need at Emerson and Allatoona elementaries, South Central Middle and Woodland High.
Program organizers from the school systems hope in the coming weeks to receive support from the community so that they can continue the program beyond December.
"Our hope is that we can get the churches and different organizations to support it after the pilot program is over," Womack said. "We need churches [or someone] to come forth and say, 'We want to take this number of kids' ... because we can't continually sustain the program with this grant money."
Whitmire said that while officials have not advertised the Backpack program, word has gotten out to those who could use the assistance, highlighting the need for the campaign's continuation and even expansion.
"We started the pilot program a couple of weeks ago, Sept. 10, and we have families that are contacting us now, asking if they can be a part of this program, from all over the county," she said. "Word has traveled fast, and we have a waiting list. We're hoping that come spring, we're going to be able to continue the program and add more families to it, serve some of these other families in other areas.
"You figure South Central and Allatoona, those schools are mostly made up of students receiving free and reduced lunch. Those are students who are already in a financial need. And there are other schools that are also up there pretty high on the free and reduced lunch list, which tells us there's a need."
Whitmire said those looking to support the program can donate money or grocery gift cards, adding that $20 can feed one child per month while $200 can feed one child each weekend during the entire school year.
For more information on Blessings in a Backpack, call Whitmire or Long at Bartow County Schools at 770-606-5800, or Womack at Cartersville City Schools at 770-387-4722.