GREENSBORO, N.C. (ABP)—Before long, youngsters toting backpacks back and forth to school will be a common sight. But for about 40 students at Peck Elementary School in Greensboro, N.C., they will carry something more vital than just notebooks and pencils.
They are members of the Backpack Club, a children's food ministry started in 2008 by Greensboro's University Baptist Church to provide weekend meals for students who participate in the federal free and reduced lunch and breakfast programs and have been identified as being at risk for weekend hunger.
The idea of packing school backpacks with nutritious and kid-friendly meals started in 1995, when a school nurse in Little Rock, Ark., called the Arkansas Rice Depot, a faith-based food bank, and told of children coming to her office complaining of headaches, tummy aches and other health problems. She soon realized they weren't getting enough to eat at home, contributing to other classroom problems like students being unable to concentrate or disruptive or simply refusing to try.
The phone call resulted in formation of the Rice Depot's Food For Kids program, which today serves more than 32,000 Arkansas school children and has been replicated across the nation.
University Baptist in Greensboro became involved after a church staff member, who heard about similar programs and saw firsthand as a school principal how many elementary children were coming to school hungry on Monday morning, suggested it to a missions committee.
"We believe that we are following Jesus' clear mandate to his followers to feed the hungry. A backpack ministry is one way to address the growing problem of hunger in our community," said a ministry statement on the church website.
"This program also affects the education of children, which is something that many of our members are connected to as teachers, librarians and administrators," it continues. "When children are hungry, they cannot learn and have discipline problems."
Other benefits include building relationships between the church and a nearby school and identifying other opportunities to minister to people with immediate needs.
Since the lunches look like any other backpack, other students don't know who is receiving food assistance.
"Teachers were noticing that on Monday mornings, some students would eat their school breakfast, but the next day they would stick it in their clothes or backpack," said Nita Capell, volunteer coordinator for Crestview Cares.
In East Texas, First Baptist Church of Whitehouse launched a food-filled backpack program after a third-grade teacher learned about a student who stole his teacher's lunch because it was his first meal in several days. That teacher, Amy Culpepper, learned about 200 students at her school received free or reduced-price lunches on school weekdays, but they lacked food each weekend, and she mobilized her church to meet that need.
First Baptist Church in Rolla, Mo., feeds nearly 400 children every week through its Friday Backpacks distributed throughout the school year.
"We had one child that was so happy on the first day when they got the first backpack they said, 'Oh, good; we normally eat bread for dinner,'" a ministry spokesperson says in a YouTube video. "One child was so excited to get this type of food, she said that her mom's food stamps had run out, and they didn't know what they were going to eat. So it gives some hope."
According to the video, there was an 85 percent decrease in school nurse visits after the first year of Friday Backpacks.
"It breaks my heart at the end of the school year, because I realize a lot of these kids are going to go through the whole summer without a lot of food," the volunteer says in the video. "I would love to see us continue this program through the summer so that we could feed our kids."