By Kara Witherow, South Georgia Advocate Editor
For a state that is well known for its peach, pecan and poultry production, the issue of hunger is, nonetheless, a real and ever-present problem in Georgia.
To help combat the issue of childhood hunger, in September 2008 members of Statesboro First United Methodist Church began Backpack Buddies, a ministry dedicated to helping meet the needs of hungry children in Bulloch County.
Teaming up with Sallie Zetterower Elementary School to provide kid-friendly, non-perishable food items to eligible, low-income students, the ministry serves approximately 40 students each week.
“We are passionate about meeting needs and feeding the hungry right here at home,” said Sarah Akins, Statesboro First UMC’s director of children’s ministries. “Anytime children are involved it especially pulls at our heart strings, and knowing we have the means to prevent such hunger is a calling that cannot be ignored.”
Every Wednesday morning, a team of volunteers packs bags full of healthy, filling food and snacks; oatmeal, crackers, applesauce, canned soup, fruit cups, granola bars are often included. On Thursdays, the church’s custodian delivers the bags to the school, and on Fridays, the teachers pass out the bags of food to those children who participate.
“The children really seem to benefit from receiving the food,” Akins said. “The teachers say that most of the students come looking for the bags of food each Friday and are excited to take them home. One student told her teacher she offers to share the food she brings home with her siblings who attend different schools and are not a part of the Backpack Buddies program.”
While school breakfast and lunch programs help hungry students get through the school day, programs like Statesboro First UMC’s Backpack Buddies help bridge the gap during the weekends and over longer breaks when school is not in session.
According to a recent national survey published in USA Today of 638 public teachers, two-thirds say they have students in their classes who regularly come to school hungry because they aren't getting enough to eat at home, and 63% of the teachers say the problem increased this past year.
The survey also found:
•65% of teachers say that many children rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition.
•61% say they purchase food for their classrooms, spending an average of $25 a month. They've also helped kids sign up for free or reduced-priced meals (74% say they've done that) and referred students and parents to resources in the school (49%).
“The only food some of these families see during the weekends and between paychecks could be what the church sends home,” Akins said.
While the school doesn’t allow the ministry to include any church or Christian materials in the food bags, the children do know that a church provides the food they receive. “It is our hope that these children and families will come to recognize the way God provided for them during hard times. We, as the church, are striving to be the hands and feet of Jesus. It is our goal for these young lives to be ministered to in a loving way that will have a lasting impact,” she said
Barbara Fox got involved with the Backpack Buddies program because she couldn’t bear the thought of a child going without food.
“I became involved almost immediately because I worry about these children maybe not eating on the weekend if we didn’t have something like this,” she said.
Fox, who helps coordinate and schedule the 20 shoppers who purchase the food, says that her involvement in the ministry has helped grow her faith and has opened her eyes to people’s generosity.
“It has increased my faith in people, in humanity, and in God,” she said. “People have been so generous. I think it’s just a wonderful, wonderful mission and I’m very, very glad that I can be a small part of it.”
The ministry, which is rooted in Matthew 25:35-40, has also helped shape and grow Akins’ faith as she leads and serves.
“My faith continues to be shaped not only by the opportunities I am given to reach out to people in need, but by witnessing the love and service that others put into caring for the lost, the broken and the hurting. It is a blessing to know that communities are being built up and needs are being met because people love God and want to serve others the way He calls us to. If you have a heart for God, you can’t help but have a heart for others.”