Providing food for kids who go hungry

"It was not my turn to eat last night," the young student told his teacher.

She had just asked him why he was so sleepy in class that day.

That conversation haunted Bonita Rowland. As a teacher, she knows how crucial good nutrition is for learning. But even more than that, the thought of hungry children in her own community broke her heart.

So when the women's circle she attends at St. John's Lutheran Church started throwing around ideas for a ministry project last year, she suggested a program to feed children with poor nutrition at home on the weekends.

They started with "baby steps," Rowland said. Her women's circle of about a half-dozen members got in touch with Corey Cochran, principal at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, who helped them find one family to support.

Every weekend since September, those children have been sent home with backpacks full of food for their meals on Saturdays and Sundays.

Thanks to more donations, the women are now providing weekend food for four families with a total of 12 children, and Rowland hopes they'll be able to help even more. She's learned that more than 200 children at Mount Pleasant Elementary qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and may go hungry on the weekends.

The backpack program is pretty simple: The women pack the bags with nutritious food midweek; Rowland delivers them to the elementary school on Fridays, labeled for Families 1 through 4. They don't know the identities of the families they assist.

The children take the packs home full Friday afternoon and bring them back empty Monday morning. Though the program operates through the elementary school, meals are also provided for older siblings. Rowland explains that it is easier (and possibly less embarrassing) for the younger children to get the backpacks, even though they are often quite heavy.

All the food sent home can be prepared by children; most is microwaveable, and everything is healthy. Oatmeal or grits, macaroni and cheese, soup, applesauce, pudding and shelf-stable milk are backpack staples.

The baby steps taken by Rowland's church friends are about to get a bit bigger. She's hoping other churches will want to get involved with the backpack program so that more children can be fed. She's also worrying about how to feed these children in summer, when school isn't in session.

If you'd like to get involved or make a donation to help, you can email Rowland at or call St. John's Lutheran Church.

As Rowland told me, "There are lots of hungry children out there." She's hoping that, with a bit of coordinated effort, it's a problem we can solve.