When some children leave school for the weekend, they head to homes where they likely won’t have much to eat until they go back to school Monday morning.
The two school systems partnered with the Bartow Collaborative last year to start the program. Grant money from the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia funded 60 backpacks, 30 for each school system.
“There’s such a need out there,” said Paula Womack, who heads up the program in the Cartersville school system. “As the economy got worse, we were seeing people we’d never seen before have economic aid issues.”
This year, 46 children in the Cartersville schools and more than 200 in the Bartow County schools receive the backpacks each week.
Kelly Whitmire with the county school system said the number of children receiving backpacks increases daily.
“They grab their backpacks to see what’s in it. It brings them a lot of joy to see that people care above and beyond school.”
“All the time, I’m hearing from counselors, ‘We’re doing this many bags now,’ ” Whitmire said. “I don’t even know the exact number of bags now. It just really took off.”
Each week, the bags are filled with easy-to-fix foods—such as Easy Mac, Beanie Weenies and ramen noodles—and are sent home with the students for the weekend. On Monday morning, the children return the bags to be refilled.
“They’re excited,” Whitmire said. “They grab their backpacks to see what’s in it. It brings them a lot of joy to see that people care above and beyond school.”
While the grant through the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia provided the seed money and is funding 60 backpacks again this school year, the school systems rely on donations and contributions from churches, organizations and individuals for the rest of the backpacks.
It's a tough time to look for new donations.
According to a report in the Washington Post, charitable giving decreased 2 percent last year, and individual donations dropped by 2.7 percent between 2007 and 2010. Charities have struggled with the reduced donations even as the bad economy has driven up demand.
The food need has become a bigger problem since Atlanta-based Angel Food Ministries, which provided affordable food to more 45 states, shut down its operations after being plagued by increasing fuel and food prices and growing numbers of customers who couldn’t pay, the Washington Times reported.
But Bartow County organizations and residents are stepping up to feed students.
The Well, a church that meets at Excel Christian Academy, fills 35 backpacks for the city school system and donates food.
Andy Postelle with The Well said his congregation of younger parents really took to the program. “I think it was a natural fit for us to be able to help kids that are like their kids,”
The church’s office on Pine Grove Road has several weeks' worth of food on hand, and church member Cindi Smith spent a couple of hours Thursday afternoon packing the 35 bags the church provides. It was the first time she participated; she decided to help out after hearing about the program during a church service.
“You sit there and you think about someone’s kids not having food from the time they leave school on Friday until they go back on Monday,” Smith said. “It resonates with you. I know it did me.”
Other churches assisting the school system include Sam Jones United Methodist Church, which raised approximately three months' worth of food for the program during a recent food drive.
Womack said the Cartersville Elementary School PTC also donated $2,000, which either will be used for additional backpacks this year or will be saved to go toward next year’s program.
“Each time we have a child and I say, ‘Oh, my goodness, we’ll have to put this child on the waiting list,’ someone comes through with a donation,” Womack said.
In the county school system, 30 churches, as well as staff and parents, donate and contribute to the program, which is in place at every elementary school as well as South Central and Adairsville middle schools and Adairsville High School.
“It started as a pretty controlled thing, and as we handed it to the schools, each school has made it into their own” community program, an official said.
As the need grows, organizers say they are always looking for more help. Each bag in the Backpack Buddies program costs $5 to $7, depending on the week’s grocery sales.
“Some of these ladies are extreme couponers, and they’re knocking it out,” Whitmire said. “They get so excited.”
To contribute to the Cartersville program, call Womack at 770-387-4722 or email email@example.com. To donate to the Bartow County program, contact the elementary school in your area.
This article is part of "Dispatches: The Changing American Dream," our ongoing series about how people in Cartersville are adapting to the challenges of life in the 21st century. You can find more Dispatches from across the country at The Huffington Post.