Feeding a hunger beyond learning
Hundreds of children in Georgetown County eat two meals every day in school. But when the weekend comes, many families go without.
Two local churches are trying to help with that. St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and Belin Memorial United Methodist Church are both home to Backpack Buddies programs, which provide bags of food for kids to take home on the weekends.
St. Peter’s supplies food to about 600 kids a week with lunch bags at Waccamaw Intermediate School and Waccamaw, Plantersville and Sampit elementary schools, and money for a similar program at Andrews Elementary School.
The program will celebrate its 10th anniversary in February. It started with 25 students at Waccamaw Elementary.
“We never expected it to get this big,” said Rita Schaap, who was on the committee that came up with the idea. “It’s just taken off and it’s something that our church community and our local community has just grabbed a hold of.”
The food is packaged in a lunch bag that fits inside a backpack every Friday during the school year. Each bag has a label with the child’s name and whether they have any allergies.
Each bag contains one main item like oatmeal, cereal or a canned item, a juice box, a treat, a fruit or pudding cup and a crunchy item like pretzels. Fruit cups, applesauce and pudding are staples. Everything else depends on what’s on sale or what’s been donated.
“I try to make sure that there’s not a big repeat during the month, and from month to month,” Schaap said, adding that she tries to avoid packages with staples or sharp edges and food that has to be heated.
One little girl at Sampit told Schaap that she loves to eat the oatmeal every Sunday before church.
About 65 volunteers are involved in the program. Some are church or community members, and some are tourists who help out when they’re in town.
“It becomes kind of a social thing as well as a service thing,” Schaap said.
Volunteers spend about an hour every month packing the bags for Waccamaw Intermediate and Waccamaw Elementary. Plantersville and Sampit have their own volunteers.
Schaap said it costs about $20,000 a year to run the program, which is about $1.50 per bag, per week. The money comes from fund-raisers, other churches, Lions Clubs, Scout troops and the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation.
“We have really great community partners,” Schaap said.
Once a month Schaap drives to Sam’s and Costco and loads up three SUVs.
Waccamaw Middle students get food every week from Belin’s Backpack Buddies program, which also serves Socastee and St. James elementary schools, St. James Middle and St. James Intermediate.
The program was started about eight years ago and now serves 205 students during the school year, according to current co-chairman Jeff Kuntz.
Twenty to 25 bags of food are donated by Belin congregants each week. They check the Backpack Buddies menu, grab a reusable green shopping bag in the Family Life Center, fill it and return it.
Lowes Foods makes frequent large food donations and lets Kuntz and his crew of about 90 volunteers hold food drives once a month.
“The extended community is very supportive of our program,” Kuntz said.
The Backpack Buddies program is housed in the church’s old parsonage, where the food is stored, sorted and bagged.
Sorters arrive on Thursday to organize the food for the following Monday. A volunteer uses a marker to write the expiration date on every piece of donated food so the oldest goes out first.
“We are very careful about that,” Kuntz said.
Baggers arrive on Monday. There are four groups that work once a month. If there’s a fifth Monday; there’s a different group.
The food is placed in grocery bags and separated by school. The bags usually include pudding or fruit cups; Vienna sausage, canned pasta or soup; macaroni and cheese; crackers or granola bars; and oatmeal.
Volunteers drivers arrive on Tuesdays and Thursdays to deliver the food to the schools.
“We’re really proud of our program,” Kuntz said. “We’re so grateful for the many, many volunteers from our church family, and also from the surrounding community.”
Food donated to Belin that is not on the menu, or is not an individual size, is donated to the food bank at St. James High or put in the bags as extras.
“Sometimes I’ll get a question: Are you afraid that someone’s going to eat the food other than the child you’re giving it to?” Kuntz said. “I always say, I hope so. If the child is in need, probably the family is.”
Any food donated to St. Peter’s that is not individual size is saved for family bags. Two years ago when there was flooding in the Sampit area, those students got family bags. Each kid in this year’s Plantersville Summer Academy got a box of cereal each week.
“We always find ways to use it,” Schaap said. “We never turn anything away.”
Food donations can be dropped off at either of church. Monetary donations are also accepted.