Published Online: April 28, 2004
Published in Print: April 28, 2004, as Take Note

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Schools in many rural and low-income communities are trying to combat hunger through a program called Backpack Buddies.

Started in 1995 in Little Rock, Ark., it provides students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches with backpacks of food they can take home on weekends.

Each backpack typically contains nonperishable, nutritious, child-friendly foods such as tuna fish, granola bars, chicken noodle soup, pudding, juice boxes, and fruit cups.

"We had been getting calls from schools for years," said Melody Wattenbarger, the executive director of the RoadRunner Food Bank in Albuquerque, N.M., which has been taking part in the program for nearly three years.

The organization now works with nearly 30 school districts and feeds more than 2,000 schoolchildren through the backpack program.

"We are serving many, many more children than we thought we would," said Ms. Wattenbarger. "It has been a shock to us that the need level was so high."

Backpack programs also have sprung up over the past three years in the District of Columbia, Idaho, New York state, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

"There’s a huge interest in the backpack program," said Susan Hofner, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based America’s Second Harvest, which supports the program in 24 communities and hopes to pilot it nationwide over the next few years.

Schools coordinate with local food banks to organize volunteers to stuff the backpacks and pass them out to students. Local businesses and community members donate some of the groceries, but many food banks buy specific items from grocers. Local sporting goods stores usually donate the backpacks.

Hungry students are unhappy students, say food bank officials, and can suffer from depression, low energy, and poor social skills.

In Albuquerque, Ms. Wattenbarger has seen the positive benefits of the program, which include better school attendance and children with more positive attitudes.

"It reduces the stigma associated with taking home a grocery bag," Ms. Hofner said of the use of backpacks. "I mean, everyone has a backpack, so who’s to say if it has food in it or gym clothes?"

—Marianne D. Hurst

Vol. 23, Issue 33, Page 3

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