Children across Macon are food insecure. One organization is keeping them fed


Yasmeen Hill

Backpack Ministry volunteer stops at a fourth-grade classroom to deliver a bag to Union Elementary School student.

Pencils, paper, notebooks and homework are all things that can be found in child’s backpack, but in recent years the Backpack Ministry has turned this grade school essential into a solution to community-wide food insecurity.

Macon-Bibb has the third highest rate of concentrated poverty in the nation, which has resulted in an increase in the amount of food insecure families or families without reliable access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food.

Developed in 2011 at Forest Hills United Methodist Church, the Backpack Ministry is a program that provides bags to elementary school students every Friday. The bags are filled with assorted child-friendly snacks to supplement for the meals that they might not get over the weekend.

“Well for one thing if a child is hungry they can’t study, they can’t concentrate all they can concentrate on is their stomach being hungry,” Backpack Ministry Chairperson Brenda Lambert said.

“Studies show that children get sick easier, that they miss school, and so we not only feel like we provide food for these children but we show them that there is somebody who loves them who doesn’t even know them.”

In its first year, the program served nine students at Lane Elementary School. Today, the Backpack Ministry, also known as the Backpack Buddy Program, serves 1,800 students in 22 schools across Bibb, Monroe and Twiggs County.

The program’s rapid growth over the past seven years illustrates the general need in the city of Macon, as 26.7 percent of Macon-Bibb residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2017 American Community Survey.

The responsibility falls on the teachers and counselors to identify the children in need of the backpacks.

“If they see children putting food in their pockets to take home, then they realize these children are hungry,” Lambert said.

Union Elementary School counselor April Griffin implemented the Backpack Buddy Program at her school after seeking out help from Lambert and her team.

“ One of our number one needs was our kids coming to school hungry not having enough food at home,” Griffin said.

After a student is identified as being food insecure, their parents sign a permission slip acknowledging that the student will be bringing home extra food in their backpack at no cost to them. Even though the program is relatively new at Union Elementary, it is proving to be beneficial.

“I’ve had students come and talk to me about how over the weekend the can of ravioli, the chips, those type of things are used to help create a meal …So they offered them to be able to have a hot meal over the weekend so they [the children] are excited about that,” Griffin said.

The Backpack Ministry runs entirely on donations from the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank and volunteers, but Lambert knows that her team at Forest Hills can’t supply all of the undernourished children in Macon. So, they have mentored seven other churches in starting their own program. The newer programs serve up to an additional 500 students.

“When we give them their food we give them a hug we tie their shoes, it’s a relationship we’ve formed with the children and with the schools,” Lambert said.