MOREHEAD CITY — Child nutrition workers with the county school system used their baking skills Saturday to fight childhood hunger.

School cafeteria managers and workers came together to sell Easter desserts they had baked to raise money for Backpack Buddies, a program that provides nutritious, nonperishable food each weekend of the school year to children who school workers say would otherwise go with little to no food. They sold their items in the train depot here.

A teacher in Texas started Backpack Buddies several years ago after seeing children come back to school hungry each Monday after spending the weekends with no food. The program quickly spread across the country.

The programs are volunteer-operated and locally run. Churches in Carteret County operate the programs across the county. Each church varies the name, from Backpack Buddies to Backpack Blessings and BackPack Friends, but all efforts are modeled after the original program.

Area churches are currently feeding about 460 students each weekend, with 240 of those in Carteret County. The remaining students are in Onslow, Craven and Jones counties.

“The last couple of months we have been talking about students who are food deprived over the weekends and what we could do as a department to combat childhood hunger,” said Frankie Sartin, director of the child nutrition program. “As we discussed ideas, we thought about Backpack Buddies, and everyone was in favor of trying to help with the expenses that are associated with this program that area churches sponsor. It just seemed like Easter was the right time to do it.”

Ms. Sartin added she knows the service is needed in the county because 45 percent of the county’s 8,500 students receive free and reduced-price lunches, which is a federal program that provides assistance to needy students.

All Carteret County schools receive assistance except West Carteret High School, and Tammy Rinehart, former WCHS cafeteria manager who is now deputy director of the child nutrition program, said there’s a need at that school, as well. 

Ms. Sartin said she’s also concerned about what will happen to students during the summer when school is out. She has already made contact with the Boys & Girls Clubs in Morehead City and Beaufort and has arranged to provide food for a summer feeding program at both clubs.

In addition, another church, Saturday Night Life in Atlantic Beach, teamed last summer with The Salvation Army in Morehead City to start a summer feeding program for children known as Lunch Box Love. The group provided 2,300 lunches to children at Pelican Point, Crystal Coast Apartments, King’s Terrace and Macon Court, all in Morehead City. The group plans to offer the program again this summer, according to Captain Kati Chase of The Salvation Army.

As for those purchasing items Saturday for Backpack Buddies, many were teachers who have seen firsthand the children who go hungry.

Chrissy Hassell, who teaches at the Carteret Preschool Center in Newport, said, “We see children needing the food. We know when they go home they don’t get it and the only meals they get are at school. That’s why we need to support this.”

Ms. Sartin, too, said cafeteria workers and managers witness the effects of hunger on the children.

“I know all of our workers have paid for children’s meals out of their own pockets,” she said. “It will break your heart.”

Ms. Sartin added that hungry children don’t learn well, so making sure they’re fed is important to their education, as well.

“Studies have shown over and over that children who eat breakfast and lunch perform better in school,” she said.

Ms. Sartin didn’t have a total yet on the amount raised through the bake sale, but said she was pleased with the turnout.

Ms. Sartin said the child nutrition department couldn’t donate to every Backpack Buddies program, so they decided to divide proceeds between Loaves and Fishes of Beaufort, a ministry which provides food to schools in the Beaufort and Down East area, and Cape Carteret Baptist, which provides food to western county schools, as well as some schools in Onslow and Jones counties.

The Rev. David Bruce, board member with Loaves and Fishes, said he appreciated the assistance because the ministry is currently providing meals each weekend to 100 students at Beaufort Elementary, Beaufort Middle, East Carteret High School, Smyrna, Harkers Island and Atlantic schools. The estimated cost to provide food is $500 each week.

“The teachers identify children who might be at risk and tell the guidance counselors. The counselors follow up with families and arrange for them to receive the food. We don’t know who the children are. They just tell us how many bags they need. We drop off the bags at the school for them to distribute to the children for the weekend.”

Rev. Bruce added that they always pack food items that children can open and prepare for themselves “in case there’s nobody at home to do it for them.”

It’s usually items such as pudding cups, Jell-O cups, peanut butter and jelly, cereal and cereal bars, Chef Boyardee items, Ramen noodles and Beanie Weenies.

Rev. Bruce said he’s aware of situations where children have to feed themselves over the weekend or go hungry.

Danielle Abraham, who coordinates the BackPack Friends program for Cape Carteret Baptist Church, said she also appreciated the efforts of the child nutrition department.

Ms. Abraham said her church  feeds about 240 students each weekend at 11 schools in Carteret, Onslow and Jones counties. In Carteret, they provide bags of food to 75 students at White Oak Elementary, Bogue Sound Elementary, Broad Creek Middle and Croatan High schools. It takes about $80,000 a year.

“We started in 2009 feeding three to five kids at White Oak Elementary School. I was on the school’s PTO at that time and we heard there were children coming back from Christmas break who would run down to the cafeteria to eat breakfast because they were so hungry. We talked about what we could do to help, so we came up with the idea of putting food in bags to give to the children.”

She said the program quickly grew because they were made aware of more children and teens going hungry on weekends. Ms. Abraham added that she is passionate about helping the children because of her background.

“I was a hunger kid growing up,” she said. “Back in the 1970s my family was poor and I know what it’s like to be really hungry and not have food.”

Although not receiving proceeds from this bake sale, First United Methodist Church in Morehead City now serves 40 students each weekend at Morehead City Primary School and Morehead City Elementary. Liz and Cliff Merrill of Morehead City lead that program.

Mr. Merrill said they’ve had an outpouring of donations since starting the program, and store food and other items such as toilet paper in a pantry area at the church. Each week the two schools tell the church how many bags are needed, and volunteers fill the orders and deliver them.

The Sports Center, Gold’s Gym and Anytime Fitness, all in Morehead City, donate to the church’s program, as does Town and Country IGA on Highway 24, and many other groups and individuals.

“Any food that is left over we give to Martha’s Mission Cupboard,” Mr. Merrill said, adding that it costs about $440 each week to feed the children.

Parkview Baptist Church in Morehead City provides food to about 75 students each week at Newport Elementary, Morehead City Middle and Havelock Elementary schools.

Reece’s Chapel in Mill Creek provides food to about seven students each weekend at Newport Middle School.

For those interested in helping, here are ways to donate:

•For the Backpack Buddies program at Loaves and Fishes: make checks payable to Backpack Buddies and mail them to Backpack Buddies, 119 Bunch Road, Beaufort, N.C. 28516.

•For the BackPack Friends program at Cape Carteret Baptist, go to ccbcnow.com, and click on the appropriate link, or make checks out to BackPack Friends and mail them to Cape Carteret Baptist Church, 101 Anita Forte Drive, Cape Carteret, N.C. 28584.

•BackPack Friends also welcomes sponsors. A child can be sponsored for $50 a month, $225 a semester, or $450 a year. To sponsor a child, contact Ms. Abraham, 810-348-5557, or email backpackfriends@icloud.com.

•For the Backpack Blessings Program at First United Methodist Church, make checks out to the church, with a note that it’s for Backpack Blessings, and mail it to the church at 900 Arendell St., Morehead City, N.C. 28557.

•For other churches, contact that church to find out the best way to donate.

•Any church interested in adopting WCHS should call the school’s guidance department, 726-1176.

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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