‘So Much Hunger’ BackPack Pals Helps More Kids Than Ever
BackPack Pals hopes the community can help feed the growing number of hungry students in Moore County schools.
Slightly more than a month since BackPack Pals began distributing food for the 2011-2012 school year, the number of students enrolled in the program has risen to more than the 850 the program was serving at the end of last year.
Linda Hubbard, former director of the program and now an employee at the Sandhills Branch of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, doesn’t see the numbers leveling off any time soon. She expects numbers will exceed 900 students by the end of December.
“Typically, when school begins, you start out with a certain number, and as the school year progresses, it grows,” Hubbard said. “What’s a little startling this year is we started out with two more [students] than last year. That’s a very large number.”
She said BackPack still sees continuing support from its main donors — local churches regularly donate food, and several local businesses help the program by organizing charity events on behalf of the nonprofit organization.
Weichert Realtors Larose and Co. Shoes for Food horseshoe tournament will be this Saturday, which will raise money to help provide Thanksgiving dinners to families registered with BackPack at Southern Pines Primary School and Southern Pines Elementary School.
“So far, we haven’t seen a drop in food donations,” Hubbard said. “The churches have been really good about bringing what they said they would bring.”
But the demand continues to grow.
Currently, BackPack spends nearly $1,900 a week to pack bags of food for needy students to make sure they have something to eat on the weekends when they otherwise would not have access to food.
Each bag is filled with about 11 food items, including various individually wrapped packages such as crackers, raisins, pudding packs, juice, applesauce, fruit cups and cereal.
Volunteer Shelia Henderson believes the higher numbers are an indicator of the recession’s trickle-down effects that are hitting harder now than they did two or three years ago.
“We have nothing to base [the numbers] on other than the economy and what’s going on right now,” she said. “The donations don’t come close to covering what we use.”
Henderson said the steady stream of donations barely covers the present demand, and as numbers continue to grow, volunteers worry that there won’t be enough food to go around.
“Every little bit helps as long as we have enough money coming in to pay the extra to get us over the hump,” she said. “But the hump has gotten bigger.”
‘Dedicated to It’
Hubbard credits the strong volunteer base BackPack has enjoyed since its inception five years ago for the organization’s ability to feed the growing numbers each year.
“We’ve got a group of volunteers that is so phenomenal,” she said. “They’ve got this down to a science.”
The fast-paced operation begins at 11 a.m. each Thursday at the food bank. Carrying plastic bags, an assembly line of volunteers walks past a table of food boxes, grabbing items to pack and handing the bags off to other volunteers waiting to pack them into boxes for delivery to each school.
Delivery volunteers come and go as they load the food into their cars and set off toward schools across the county.
Joyce Holland has been a BackPack volunteer for four years, serving as a packer and a delivery volunteer for Aberdeen Primary School.
Though she started out solely as a bagger, Holland eventually slid into her current position as a delivery volunteer after filling in for other drivers from time to time.
“Gradually, I became the person that always delivered to Aberdeen Primary,” she said. “So naturally, I sort of began to think of it as my school.”
Holland has always seen volunteerism as a civic duty. She feels especially passionate about BackPack because the program addresses the ongoing national issue of hunger, especially for children, at the local level.
“I do think that in a country like ours it’s really a shame on our nation that there is so much hunger,” she said. “I guess that’s why I feel very dedicated to it.”
Every Thursday, Holland pulls up in front of the school and carries what bags she can inside and down the hall to guidance counselor Dellah Crabtree’s classroom. Usually, a few second-graders are there ready to help Holland carry in the rest of the bags.
Holland has watched the demand for food grow as the number of bags in her delivery has grown.
Aberdeen Primary had 60 students receiving food at the end of the last school year.
When this year’s distribution started Sept. 15, Holland took food to 35 students at the school. Last week, she delivered food for 76 students — which, according to Crabtree, accounts for almost 20 percent of Aberdeen Primary’s student population.
Crabtree said that growing numbers at the school have trickled in over the last few weeks as parents realize the option is available.
‘Everything to Her’
Though each school has different methods of identifying students for the program, Aberdeen Primary sent letters home to all parents at the beginning of the year to let them know about the program.
“We’re a very needy school,” Crabtree said. “So it’s just making parents aware that [BackPack is] here.”
She attributes some of the increased demand to the fact that the school has received more new students in recent weeks and the prevalence of homelessness in students has been increasing.
She added that some families who didn’t need the program earlier in the year have experienced changes that have made them seek the option now — a trend that Crabtree has seen more this year than in previous years.
“Situations at home have changed,” she said. “Some parents have come to me and asked for a form.”
After Holland drops off the food, teachers come by Crabtree’s classroom to pick up the food for their students.
Once in their classrooms, the teachers slip the food into students’ cubbies, and students put the food in their backpacks while they pack up for the day.
Crabtree said discretion for BackPack recipients is crucial even in a school with younger students, who may not realize what the bags mean.
“It’s important to any kid,” she said. “You don’t want to single out or embarrass them, so you have to be discreet. Our children are so young that you don’t want to put that out there.”
For Crabtree, BackPack is a very helpful program that allows the school to provide additional support to families in need.
As she discussed BackPack’s impact on Aberdeen Primary students, one hungry student stood out in her mind. Each Friday, the bag of food heading home with the student in her backpack is a precious gift.
“That’s all she gets,” Crabtree said. “It’s everything to her. The teacher will say that she is so excited to get this.”
Hubbard said that the best place to drop off food or monetary donations for BackPack is at the food bank at 195 Sandy Avenue off Pinehurst Avenue in Southern Pines. The food bank is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Though BackPack faces a bigger hump this year, Hubbard believes that all students in the program will get fed because of local generosity.
“We’re very fortunate to live in Moore County, which has traditionally been a very giving county to this program,” she said. “I suspect that if the numbers do get over 900, we will be able to take care of them. We just want to make sure that the community is aware that the need is still there, and the need is greater than ever.”
Anyone needing more information about BackPack Pals can contact Hubbard at the Sandhills Branch of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina at (910) 692-5959, extension 2407.
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