Who will feed me this weekend?
It's a question no child should have to ask. But for kids who rely on free and reduced meals at school for daily nutrition, it's a question they could face every Friday afternoon. Sixty-five hours of weekend with an empty belly is a long time, especially for a child trying to grow and learn.
Blessings in a Backpack is tackling child hunger by giving backpacks full of food to elementary age students every weekend for the entire school year. The national organization feeds more than 87,300 children in nearly 1,092 schools in 45 states.
And it's making a difference here in Mecklenburg County, where 130,000 children are living below the poverty line. One in three Charlotte households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing, with little left over for basic needs like food.
When Anne Sinsheimer and Carol Burgess learned about Blessings in a Backpack they were inspired to create a local chapter. "We kept thinking about hungry children and how we could make a difference, so we decided to take a leap of faith and try to help," says Carol.
That leap of faith is now feeding 39 children every weekend during the school year at Starmount Elementary School in Southwest Charlotte. It's a hyper-local, grassroots program—they store their food donations in Carol's dining room—but it's making an enormous difference. Hunger affects a child's ability to learn, grow and thrive. When a child gets adequate nutrition during the weekend, they come to school Monday morning in much better shape—physically, emotionally and academically.
Starmount Elementary School Counselor Lindsay Natoli helps identify children in need and distribute backpacks. "Lindsay tells us stories of the kids happily receiving their bags each week," says Carol. "We believe one of the major roadblocks for a child's success is inadequate nutrition. We know we are making a difference for these kids and their families."
Childhood hunger seems like a foreign idea to many of us in Charlotte, but it's happening right under our noses. "Starmount Elementary is just four miles from my house," says Carol. "I had no idea that hunger existed in my backyard."
Another surprise for Carol and Anne? The abundance of kindness of their community. "We have been blessed to receive backpack donations from American Honda Finance Corporation, Wells Fargo Championship, Syska Hennessy Group, The Children's Circle at MPUMC and Temple Beth El religious school fund," says Carol. "We also have a high school student, Catherine Pickett, who has given a lot of her time and energy to run food drives, pack backpacks, and deliver them to school."
Nearly 40 children at Huntingtowne Farms Elementary School are also getting fed on the weekends, thanks to a second Charlotte chapter run by Debbie Porter. "I wanted my children to understand that not everyone has the same advantages as they do, even just a few miles away," says Debbie, whose children help pack and deliver the backpacks. Debbie's son even coordinated a packing event with his high school business club that fed the children for six weeks.
For Debbie, the most rewarding part of being a site coordinator is "knowing that we're helping to provide some relief for children who need extra help." Being a site coordinator also means Debbie gets to witness the tremendous generosity that exists in Charlotte, from Temple Israel providing food storage space and event assistance, to the Jewish Federation providing books for each backpack on the last day of school.
Feeding a child over the weekend is something we can all take part in. Here are three ways you can make a difference:
1. Start a Blessings in a Backpack chapter to feed children in your neighborhood school, or adopt a school in need.
2. Help feed the children at Starmount or Huntingtowne Farms by making a financial donation. $100 feeds a child on the weekends for one 38-week school year. Donate here and enter Starmount Elementary School or Huntingtowne Farms Elementary School in the Designation section.
Grace Kennedy is a Huntersville-based writer specializing in storytelling for nonprofits. Learn more at gracekennedy.net.