Statistics show that one in four children in Sampson County are food insecure and often worry where they will get meals from over the weekend and holidays.
Working to combat this problem, First United Methodist Church, along with many volunteers, civic organizations and churches, have been a part of the Backpack Buddies initiation that started locally eight years ago.
According to Jean Kunzman, Backpack Buddies is a food ministry that provides bags of non-perishable food items to children in Clinton City Schools grades pre-K through eighth over the weekend and holidays. On average, the organization distributes more than 250 bags of food each week during the school year.
“The church wanted to do something to help those children who are food insecure by providing them with food to take home over the weekends,” Kunzman said.
Every week, Kunzman and about 15 other volunteers meet weekly at Sunset Avenue School to assemble the hundreds of bags and fill them with food items that have been donated by local businesses, organizations and churches. Many of the volunteers are retired teachers and understand the need for students to receive the food.
“Someone who is food insecure lacks the access to enough food for an active life,” Kunzman said.
During school hours, children are fed breakfast and lunch and for the majority of children who are part of the Backpack Buddies program, these meals are free. Breakfast is free for all students in Clinton City Schools. The problem comes when students are sent home on Friday afternoons and will not return to school until Monday morning.
“We pack enough food to tide them over the weekend,” Kunzman shared. “Many of these kids don’t have a clue where they will get food from when they aren’t in school.”
Backpack Buddies tries to incorporate items in the bags that children can prepare themselves and without the need for additional food items to be purchased by the families. Within the bags, Kunzman said they include cereal, oatmeal, canned pasta, vegetables and soup, Pop Tarts, fruit bars, raisins, fruit and pudding cups and cheese crackers.
“These bags are sent to the homes who are the working poor,” Kunzman explained. “The parents work and often make just enough that they don’t get government assistance. When it comes to paying bills or buying food, many times the parent has to choose to pay the bill.”
The students needs are often recognized by their teacher and then they make the school counselor, social worker and principal aware of the student and need. A letter is sent home to the parent asking for permission to send the food home each week. Kunzman said each sibling who is in school and lives in the home receives a bag on Fridays.
The food is often given through donations from civic organizations, businesses and churches, such as First United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church, Lions Club, Food Lion, Rotary Club, BETA at Clinton High School, PTAs at local schools, Sampson Community College and the girl and boy scouts.
According to Kunzman, the average family of four will miss approximately 100 meals a month because of the lack of money to purchase food. As a result, Kunzman said children are more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, develop impairments, have more social and behavioral problems and at a higher risk for chronic health issues.
“Approximately 84 percent of these households purchase what is cheap and not what is healthy,” Kunzman added. “Many families have to make a choice in paying bills or buying food.”
During the first two years of Backpack Buddies, Kunzman said the numbers were much lower, but in the last six years, the program has grown.
For anyone interested in making a donation, monetary and food donations can be made to First United Methodist Church and designated for Backpack Buddies.
Reach Kristy D. Carter at 910-592-8137, ext. 2588. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd. Like us on Facebook.