CENTREVILLE — A small, dedicated group of volunteers have made an enormous impact on the lives of hundreds of students in Queen Anne’s County, providing at-risk children weekend care packages filled with food items when the free-from-hunger security of school buildings is absent.
Since 2010, the Backpack Weekend Food for Kids program has helped prepare, package, and distribute breakfast and lunch meals to students who, for whatever reason, are most at risk of not getting fed when school is not in session. Local churches collaborate directly with individual schools – the program serves all of the elementary and middle schools in the county – communicating with guidance counselors to evaluate the need and execute the deliveries.
Citing the sudden financial strain on county families, their efforts ramped up during the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of providing meals solely to at-risk students, the community initiative broadened their production to serve any student who needed help. At the height of the pandemic and the program’s output, Backpack Weekend Food for Kids was supplying upwards of 1,000 bags per week.
"These bags have helped to make sure that students have enough food for the weekends," said QACPS Chief Operating Officer Sid Pinder. "The volunteers have shown up weekly, [and fought] all types of weather to make sure these bags are distributed. It has been a great partnership!"
This year, however, the program will return to its regular at-risk clientele.
The added efforts during the pandemic coincided with those of the county school system, whose Summer Food Service Program ended August 25. All summer, Queen Anne’s County Public Schools has provided food, quantified in either three or seven day packages, to all of its students. The backpack initiative’s universal donations during the school year carried over into the summer along with the county, providing about 500 bags of food weekly at the school system’s grab and go sites.
This summer, in addition to serving the county’s general student population, the program partnered with the school system’s 2021 Migrant Summer School based out of Centreville Elementary. With the help of Christ Church Parish Kent Island, an Episcopal church in Stevensville, the initiative put together 450 bags to feed an additional 55 students.
“There are hunger issues everywhere, you know,” said Vince Radosta, co-chairperson of the Queen Anne’s County Hunger Backpack Committee. “This is just our little small way of trying to help.”
The Backpack Weekend Food for Kids Program began in 2010, sprouting from Centreville United Methodist Church and an intimate group of congregation volunteers. The network of churches and schools steadily grew, gaining support from both QACPS and county officials. In 2015, the program was incorporated as a formal committee under the Local Management Board and has received partial funding from the county ever since.
As of Aug. 23, ten churches contribute to the program: Centreville United Methodist Church, Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Christ Church Parish Kent Island, New United Methodist Church, Immanuel United Methodist Church, Kent Island Methodist Church, St. Christopher’s Catholic Church, St. Luke’s Parish/St. Andrews Chapel, and Living Water Lutheran Church.
Most donations, however, come from the churches’ congregations and their outreach ministries, or from their own fundraisers. In addition to the program’s partnership with the Maryland Food Bank, many local organizations also contribute to the cause, including the Kent Island and Centreville Rotary clubs, the Kent Island American Legion, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.
Unlike the QACPS program, the backpack initiative exclusively serves non-perishable food items, and many coupons are clipped to maximize the group’s output. According to Kathy Sells, the program’s other co-chairperson, volunteers scour wholesale stores and scrape across grocery aisles for deals and sales.
“The recognition really goes to the volunteers and to the people in the community who donate food to either the food drives or to the churches,” Sells said.
In terms of production, each church has their own individual systems. In some cases, the meals are piled together before being put into the bags, and in others, a factory line set up has workers walk along tables, picking up each necessary item from one end to the other. Unbelievably, according to Sells, around 50 volunteers make this county-wide effort possible.
“We’re devoting our time without any, you know, repercussions or anything coming back to us,” Radosta said. “Aside from the joy of helping people.”
Donations to support the Backpack Weekend Food for Kids Program may be made through churches, local service organizations, or through Queen Anne’s Advocates for Youth.