CENTREVILLE — For four years, the Queen Anne’s County Backpacks For Kids Program has helped feed local children on the free or reduced meal program over the weekends.

The program provides meals to students at school on Friday that they took home in their backpacks — hence the name.

The program has an added significance during the COVID-19 crisis.

There are more families in need and for entire weeks instead of just weekends. With schools closed, meals are available for pickup at 13 locations across Queen Anne’s County. About 700-750 kids per week get fed because of the program. And that number is growing.

“When the pandemic started, the schools set up 13 sites around the county, and the schools are giving out breakfasts, lunches and dinners. We (the backpack committee) go to these sites on Fridays to deliver the backpacks,” committee chair Lee Franklin said. “And what’s happened is, now, there are so many people coming out to these sites, and we give backpacks to everyone who shows up at the sites. We’re not going to check. Obviously, the people who come need the food. So, the numbers of people who are getting backpacks has grown a lot.”

The backpack program is separate from the school system’s free and reduced meal program, but they’ve worked together and coordinated during the coronavirus pandemic.

When school is in session like normal, the backpack program gets numbers from school guidance counselors for how many students are on the free and reduced meal plans who they think will need meals for the weekend. The program has churches and other faith-based organizations linked with schools to collect and provide donations for the backpacks.

In that sense, community and local business participation has been key in the program’s success. Stevensville Rita’s Italian Ice owner Linda Austin, who coordinates donations through her contacts, said a local bakery has consistently donated loaves of bread, an executive for Bob Evans in the area has donated eggs, and the Chick-fil-A on Kent Island has donated applesauce and juice boxes.

Starting last week, the countywide grab-and-go meals operation moved from five days a week to two to limit exposure to the virus — both for people picking up and handing out the meals.

On Tuesday, meals are distributed for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from the school system. On Friday, the school system gives out Friday and Monday meals, and the backpack program gives out the weekend meals.

Austin said everyone involved with the program is taking proper precautions, wearing gloves and masks and social distancing. She said they’re trying to operate with as few people as possible.

The Queen Anne’s County Local Management Board, which oversees the backpack program, is grateful for Austin and the other volunteers that help with the program.

“They are amazing volunteers. It’s an amazing effort that we supported before the COVID-19. They’ve only stepped up to do more work,” said Mike Clark, executive director of Queen Anne’s County Housing and Family Services. “They do an amazing job, and they’ve really stepped up. And they’re a perfect example of a community and government working together to get results. It’s just really fun to watch happen.”

Franklin said people can help through financial donations because some of the items they use for backpacks can be difficult to find.

Austin said another way people can help with the program is by picking up meals for a neighbor or relative that can’t safely leave their home.

But the best way to help is through donations. She’s actively accepting donations at Rita’s for those who can locate and acquire the items needed.

“We’re collecting on behalf of the backpack program, so people still have a place to bring the things they want to donate,” Austin said. “Or if they’re out shopping and they see the items that we need for the backpack program, because everything’s so limited, we’re asking them if they can’t afford to donate, to still please pick it up, and we’ll reimburse them. Or if somebody wants to just do a financial contribution, they can do that to the local management board.

“Tuna fish, peanut butter, mac and cheese, fruit cups, things like that. Campbell’s soups, kid-friendly Campbell’s soups, those are the things (we’re always looking for).”

Franklin said the importance of the backpack program in a time like this cannot be overstated.

“It’s absolutely crucial,” Franklin said. “And I think this whole pandemic has raised awareness all over the country of the need for a more realistic safety net for our food insecure families and people.”

Follow me on Twitter @SethTow.

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