Since January, I’ve been a volunteer with the backpack program, one of several affiliated with The Corner Table.
It’s not that big of a deal on my part. I show up at the building off Tate Boulevard on a weekday morning or a Sunday afternoon and spend an hour or so filling plastic bags that are tied shut and stacked in large pallet boxes to be picked up by other volunteers who take them to various schools.
It’s part of the long-standing effort to fight hunger among school-aged children throughout the county in all three school systems. Food is sent home weekly with students to provide meals for weekends. The mission of the program is to eliminate hunger as a barrier to a good education.
Nationwide, 22 million school children receive free or reduced-price meals through the school lunch program and breakfast programs. But while these nutrition programs feed kids on weekdays, there’s a gap on weekends when many of these children go home to bare cupboards and depleted refrigerators.
The backpack food, all donated or purchased with donated funds, includes an assortment of nonperishables for kids to eat between Friday and Monday.
On one of the days I packed last month, the bags included a box of flavored crackers, two containers of Cheerios, a package of muffin mix, a can of ravioli, a can of chicken, small bag of rice, and small pack of Oreos. Not a delicatessen, but a welcome nutrition, nonetheless.
The mix varies according to what’s available. Sometimes the bags include dry pasta and tomato sauce, pudding cups, gummies, corn or green beans. Other days, we may be packing fruit cups, Pop Tarts, tuna and peanut butter. The focus is on kid-friendly foods that are easy to prepare.
Recipients can pick up their food each Friday during the school year and place them discreetly inside their backpack. Recipients do not have to answer questions or qualify.
Often, teachers and guidance counselors recommend students in need. Or the students recommend themselves. Over the summer months, the backpack program will continue with food bags at library branches across the county. Bags of free nonperishables will be placed near the checkout desks.
The program operates on an honor system much like a tiny library or a blessing box set up at various churches. If your child truly needs help with food, the packed bags are free for the taking.
Amanda Freeland who coordinates the program, says school cafeterias will be open to help feed hungry kids. The idea is to address children who live in “food deserts,” places where there is very limited or no access to nutritious, fresh food that is affordable. Food deserts generally exist in rural areas, and Catawba County has plenty of those.
Volunteers range from school children to young adults to retirees. They are male and female from all backgrounds and ethnicity just like the food recipients.
Some such as myself volunteer as individuals who simply want to help out. Others are fulfilling community service requirements for graduation or are doing service as part of a civic club or church group. Volunteers pack the food bags, help stock shelves, sort donations and stack and help load cars with food bags. Some volunteers are one-timers; others volunteer most every day the facility is open. To volunteer, you simply fill out a form on-line and show up at the appointed time. Packing sessions generally last an hour or so.
One particular day this spring, I filled bags with a lady who said she enjoys stuffing the bags because it gives her an opportunity to pray for a child who will receive a particular bag. A caring gesture, for sure.
The countywide backpack program began in response to the Great Recession in 2008-2009 and has been serving local children ever since. Freeland began working for the program then and has seen it expand from school to school. This school year, the Backpack program has served more than 1,500 children at 45 school sites. That’s an average of 33 students per school who would otherwise not have enough to eat on weekends.
The Backpack program is one of several programs of The Corner Table, a nonprofit that seeks to provide meals with compassion, respect and dignity to those affected by hunger in our community. The Corner Table also manages the soup kitchen and bag lunches for soup kitchen guests to tide them over on weekends. They’re all programs that these guests—some of them homeless—regard as a lifesaver.
The Corner Table programs operate through thick and thin. In spite of the restrictions and challenges of COVID, the soup kitchen served nearly 32,000 guests with take-out meals while providing backpack food for 49 out of 52 weeks. Truly remarkable.
The Corner Table could not exist without community funding. A major force in the effort is the Baker’s Dozen Women’s Society, a group of local women tapped to raise money to help provide meals for our hungry guests.
I’m proud to be part of the 2021 Baker’s Dozen this year. We’re a group who enjoys getting together to share ideas and friendship while supporting one of our community’s most rewarding causes.
We’re engaging in a variety projects to support the mission of The Corner Table. We’re scheduled to have a booth at the Conover Farmer’s Market Saturdays through August. We’ve been selling the popular Butter Braid pastries, original crafts and other goodies with all proceeds benefiting The Corner Table.
More information is available on the Corner Table website, http://www.thecornertable.org/ Click on the “Fundraising and networking societies” to see who is involved this year. So far, we’ve raised nearly $30,000, with six more months to go! All of us “bakers” would be honored to have your support.