By Traci Moyer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — Deanna McNeese says it is hard to listen to children talk about being hungry when school is not in session.
“Times are tough,” said McNeese, a social worker at Anderson Elementary. “We have several kids coming to us, not so much that they are asking for things, but there is a need for food and a need for other items like clothes and shoes.”
Thanks to a program started by the Anderson First United Methodist Church in 2011, some of those children no longer face the challenges of a long weekend of hunger and recently other organizations have joined in the church’s efforts.
The “Buddy Bags” program provides food for students, who have been identified by need, with nutritious items to help feed them on the weekends. Each month, approximately 1,100 children in the Anderson Community Schools district are provided with a bag filled with a single-serving item such as beef stew, beans and franks, fruit bars and canned pasta.
Children at Anderson Elementary were the first to receive the Buddy Bags and the program has since expanded to Valley Grove.
Johanne Coleson, the Buddy Bags coordinator for First United Methodist Church, said giving the children food to keep them from being hungry has been a humbling experience.
“We had one student ask if he could have another bag for his family, it touched me – it really did,” Coleson said. “We had to tell him no, that there is only one a piece.”
Feeding the children requires careful balance in order to reach the most children and prolong the program in the community for as long as possible. Coleson said they are fortunate to receive the food for the bags from Second Harvest Food Bank. Each bag only costs the program $4, she said.
Initial funding for the program was made available through a Madison County Community Foundation grant of $10,000, Coleson said. Additional funding for the program — in excess of $107,000 — has been raised through private donations, friends and members of the Anderson First United Methodist Church.
On average, the cost to run the program is $39,600 a year and the program is run for nine months out of the year while the schools are in session, Coleson said.
Due to financial restrictions, however, the Buddy Bags program does not send children home with food every weekend. The bags are distributed to the children one or two weekends out of the month, Coleson said.
With the proper funding, program organizers say they would like to expand the program into other elementary schools.
In late 2013, Community Hospital Anderson joined the church in its fight against local hunger by sponsoring the addition of another Buddy Bags distribution.
“We feel like this program falls right in line with our mission statement which reads, “Deeply committed to the communities we serve, we enhance health and well being,” said Brandy Hill, a marketing and community relations representative for the hospital. “We strive to do more than just provide health care for our patients, but to also care for the wellness of our community.
“Providing these children with a bag full of healthy, nutritious food, when they might otherwise go without, will improve the quality of life for these families.”
Hill said Community Hospital Anderson became involved with the program after its leadership team heard about it from a member of the church.
“We learned that they provided the bags one weekend per month, and determined that we could do the same,” she said.
The program also gives the employees an opportunity to get out into the community, Hill said. On the second week of each month, Hill said, Community Hospital employees pack the bags at First United Methodist, and then help to distribute the bags on a Friday at Anderson Elementary.
“It’s rewarding to us to be able to see the faces of those we are helping, and to see that we are making a difference in their lives,” she said.
McNeese said the children at her school are very happy to receive the bags and often she will hear stories of them sharing food with siblings or even with their classmates.
“It’s nice to see kids helping out other kids too, without demeaning them,” she said. “Sometimes they will pass items around. It’s nice to see them not only receive items, but being more caring and sharing their items, too.”
Parents have thanked the school for the snack items in the food bags saying there is often not enough money to buy these kinds of treats, she said.
“We think it is so wonderful we have so many retired individuals helping us out,” McNeese said of the volunteers in the program. “We are also really grateful for the partnerships we have in the community. We really appreciate them.”
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Feeding the children Due to the structure of the program, Anderson First United Methodist Church is unable to accept food donations for Buddy Bags. Financial contributions, however, can be accepted. Donations can be sent to Anderson First United Methodist Church, 1215 Jackson St., Anderson 46016 with a note that the donation is for the Buddy Bags program. For more information on how to help or become involved in the program, call the church at 643-6977.