In five weeks’ time, each of the bags will be dispersed at three area schools and collected by children who might not have much food on the table over the weekend. The food distribution project is part of a national effort, promoted by the Kentucky-based nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack, to ensure all children have food when they go home, said Scott Clay, an organizer.
“These kids know before they go home there is no need to look in the cabinet,” said Clay, who jump-started the program locally.
Clay joined Blessings in a Backpack in 2010 to serve 100 children in Alexandria’s schools, where his children attended. Over the next two school years the program expanded to include students at Anniston’s 10th Street Elementary and Cobb Elementary schools.
Blessings in a Backpack aims to supplement the federal school lunch program, which helps feed children during the school day, according to the organization’s website. It works with volunteer groups across the country to make food packages for children.
Each of the bags includes easy-to-prepare food items, such as individual servings of noodles, pudding, cereal bars, instant oatmeal and canned spaghetti. They are sent to children who are part of the federal lunch program and were selected by teachers to receive the food, Clay said.
“A lot of them don’t know where they’re going over the weekend,” Clay said sitting on an unfolded tailgate just outside the church. “We try to put things in there that are easy to prepare.”
The food packages are delivered to the schools every Friday school is open. Clay was at the church with two other volunteers to load food for the weekly delivery on a recent Friday when he stopped to speak to a reporter.
Another volunteer standing by, Aaron Creed, a pastor at Mountain View, said he sees first-hand why some families need food assistance. He recalled a family he’s met with three children, two adults and a $600 monthly income.
He also recalled a local mom who told him she was going to try to make the food packages her children received through Blessings in a Backpack last for the entire family until a following Wednesday.
“Those are the kind of people that I know need food,” Creed said.
Each meal costs $2.10, and the local volunteers help children weekly through the program, Clay said.
The food supplies are purchased with donations to Blessings in a Backpack. Donations to the organization, Clay said, can be designated specifically for Calhoun County children and 100 percent of the donations are used to feed children.
Clay purchases the food from Wal-Mart and Food Land. Both stores provide special discounts to Clay for the program, he said.
Volunteers collect the food on large pallets from area stores and bring it to Mountain View, a church that was once a cinema. The food is kept in a storage room there that was once a theater, and still has sloped floors and tall ceilings, but no seating or carpet.
There, a swarm of volunteers meets once every five weeks to break the pallets up into food packages. Working like a factory assembly-line crew, they are usually able fill the roughly 2,250 plastic bags with food items in less than an hour, Clay said.
The bags are kept in large wooden boxes, which take up an entire wall in the old theater and are nailed together from plywood.
Then, each Friday just after noon, about three volunteers, including Clay, pluck the bags, two fistfuls at a time, from the bins. Counting carefully to make sure they deliver the right amount of food bags to each school, the volunteers load the bags into plastic storage bins and pack them in their personal trucks and SUV’s to deliver them to schools.
At the schools, volunteers are met by one or two more who help the schools hand the packages off to children by 2 p.m. At some of the schools, educators refer to the program as “the backpack club,” and call all children in the club to pick up the food on Friday afternoons.
On a recent Friday at Alexandria Elementary School, children filed into the lunchroom and collected the food items from the plastic bins. Like going through a lunch line, the process seemed routine for the young students.
Some stopped to hug the volunteers. Many said they would be eating the food in their packages over the weekend.
Through Blessings in a Backpack, the church is only able to help a fraction of the students who qualify for the program, Clay said.
“We’re maxed out here,” Clay said.
In Anniston schools alone, more than 1,000 children qualify for the program. He said anyone who wants to start their own Blessings in a Backpack program needs three things: volunteers, donors and commitment.
Anyone who commits to serve at least 50 kids for three years can work with the national non-profit, Blessings in a Backpack, he said.
To donate to Blessings in a Backpack for Calhoun County send money to P.O. Box 2064, Anniston 36202. Checks should be made out to Blessings in a Backpack and donors can designate funds for Calhoun County on the “for” line to keep the money local, Clay said.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.