Despite a national obsession with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, there is a large population for whom the very basic of needs are not sufficiently met, especially in the realm of adequate nutrition. And it is the youngest who are suffering in the greatest numbers.

In September 2011, the U.S. Census reported that 16.4 million children under the age of 18 were living in poverty, a staggering 22 percent—or nearly one quarter—of the youth's population.

It has been nearly seven decades since the free and reduced lunch program was established nationally to provide healthful breakfasts and lunches to school age children every week day of the school year. But that can still leave many children hungry over the weekend.

It is for these very children the Backpack Buddy program has been created.

Area churches, including Oakdale Methodist Church, First United Methodist Church, Stephenville Christian Reformed Church and First Baptist Church, have come together to develop the program for needy students. Still in its infancy, those on the planning committee are determined to address the issue of the food insecurity experienced by some local children.

First United Methodist's Cynthia Rives and Oakdale Methodist Church's Dee Cox visited with the E-T to discuss the program and their plans for implementing it in our schools.

“The students we are going to serve are used to having two meals a day in the public schools during the week during the school year. But they might not have anything dependable to eat on the weekends,” Rives said. “So the weekends can be seen as food 'insecure.'

“We had heard about the program, but last spring members of United Methodist Women went to Mineral Wells for a district meeting,” she continued. “Part of the program they gave was about the Backpack Buddy program they were doing, and they gave us the details on how they did it. So we figured if they can do it, so can we.”

“We brought the idea before some of the women in our church at Oakdale Methodist,” Cox added. “The ladies became totally excited about getting this started in our community. Lori Altebaumer (fellow member of Oakdale Methodist) investigated the program more in depth and started to get it organized. And that's how it is growing,” Cox said.

Rives aspires to make the program a community as well as an ecumenical one, inviting other churches and organizations to join them to promote the program's success.

“We are trying to develop a shared ministry with as many churches, organizations and individuals in Stephenville that would like to support this project,” she said.

For the moment, they are focusing on identifying children at Central Elementary and Chamberlin Elementary.

“But as soon as we find it is feasible, we will do all of the elementary schools,” Rives said.

The committee has planned for the first food delivery to be Friday, Sept. 14, after students have been identified and parental agreement obtained. The food, which will be in a box that is to be discreetly tucked into the child's backpack, will come prepackaged directly from the Tarrant County Food Bank. It will contain kid-friendly, shelf-stable items that require no cooking. Items may include milk, fruit juice, a cereal box, pudding, peanut butter and jelly and sunflower seeds.

“In the Backpack Buddy program as it has been laid out nationwide, there are communities that are going all the way through high school,” Cox said. “However, it all depends on funding. And we feel the emphasis should be on the younger children because it has been proven that children who have not been well nourished do not develop well physically or academically.”

At this time, the Backpack Buddy program is looking for monetary donations rather than food.

“Food donations are something we might look at further down the road. But in order to get this program started, we are going to use the food bank,” Cox said.

A multiple church fundraising garage sale allowed the project to net over $1,500. Rives and Cox urge community organizations to make the project the emphasis of their own fundraisers.

“We are going to have Backpack Buddy trees, kind of like an angel tree concept. You can adopt a child and choose what level of support you wish to give,” Rives said.

They hope to have the trees in all of the churches and perhaps some of the local businesses.

“We are open to any businesses that would like to have a tree,” Rives said.

Anyone interested in making a donation can contact 965-5046. Funds can also be sent to Backpack Buddies at Oakdale Methodist Church, 2675 Overhill Dr., Stephenville, Texas, 76401.