About three years ago, Columbia County teachers started noticing that some pupils seemed too eager for the lunch bell to ring.
Many pupils eagerly awaited lunch each day to escape the monotony of class or to socialize. For certain pupils, though, lunch meant an end to a weekend of hunger.
Such reports were the impetus to start the Saturday Sacks program by Columbia County Community Connections.
Each week, the Harlem-based nonprofit organization delivers about 350 sacks of food to schools for children who might otherwise go hungry on weekends.
"For some families, this is a really tough time," said Community Connections' executive director, Julie Miller. "You hope children aren't going hungry, but it happens. It happens here."
Saturday Sacks is based on Golden Harvest Food Bank's Back Pack Program, which provides needy children with a weekly backpack of nonperishable food and snacks.
Golden Harvest provides Community Connections with 100 back packs each week. The remainder of the Saturday Sacks are put together and delivered by Community Connections. Some churches conduct similar programs, Miller said.
Columbia County elementary schools taking part in the effort include Westmont, Martinez, North Harlem, Bel Air, Euchee Creek, Cedar Ridge, Brookwood, South Columbia, North Columbia, Stevens Creek and Evans.
Community Connections lacks the resources to expand the program to middle and high schools, Miller said.
"We just don't have the manpower to expand," she said. "I couldn't even begin to tell you how many there are going hungry on the weekends."
At 42 sacks each week, Westmont Elementary has the largest number of recipients in the program.
"Some of them are from one-parent families," Westmont counselor Anne Palmer said of the participating pupils. "Some are being raised by grandparents. There could be a job loss involved, or an incarceration. Sometimes, there are a lot of kids in the family and paychecks just don't stretch as far as they need to."
Parents need only to request aid to take part in the program, Palmer said.
As much as officials want to help hungry kids, they also want to save them from embarrassment.
"They (Saturday Sacks) come in Fridays and we discreetly take them around to the classes," Palmer said. "The teachers help the kids put them in the book bags without anyone noticing."
Each sack contains breakfast items such as toaster pastries, instant oatmeal, granola or cereal bars; two protein items such as Beanee Weenees, SpaghettiOs, peanut butter or hash; fruit-based snacks such as applesauce, boxes of raisins or fruit juices; and dairy-based treats such as pudding or yogurt-covered fruit.
Miller said teachers have told her they have seen a significant change in pupils involved in the program.
"The teachers report to us that the kids are better focused and are more likely to come to school on Friday to receive their food," she said.
Those wishing to donate to the Saturday Sacks program can send checks or money orders to Columbia County Community Connections at P.O. Box 99, Harlem, GA 30814. To donate food, drop it off at a participating school or at the Community Connections office at 405 W. Church St., Harlem.
Columbia County Community Connections would like to extend the food program into middle and high schools but lacks the resources, says its executive director, Julie Miller.[CAPTION]
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