COLUMBIA — On Friday afternoons, 90 percent of the students at Benton Elementary School receive a pack filled with food to stick in their backpacks and take home.
That way, they will have some food over the weekend.
To volunteer at the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, call (573) 474-1020 or (800) 764-3663.
Items most needed for Buddy Packs are: peanut butter crackers, pop-topped canned fruit and canned soups, 100 percent fruit juice, granola bars and peanut butter in plastic jars.
In Columbia, food for the Buddy Packs and for other use may be dropped off at 2101 Vandiver Drive.
Other information about the food bank, including how to give money, can be found at its website, sharefoodbringhope.org.
The Buddy Pack program began in 2005 at the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. Since then, the number of students in the program has grown from 300 children a week to 8,500 a week across 32 Missouri counties. The number of children who qualify is more than six times higher, said Peggy Kirkpatrick, executive director of the food bank.
"(Children) become extremely dependent on this program — not just physically for the food, but emotionally as well," Kirkpatrick said. "They're distraught if, for instance, there's going to be a snow day on the day they normally get their buddy packs. They freak out."
She recalled the story of a 9-year-old who started rationing his food before Christmas because he knew he wouldn't go to school for two weeks.
Currently, 1,225 students in Boone County receive a Buddy Pack filled with non-perishable foods such as applesauce, ravioli and granola bars each week. About 12 percent of those students are at Benton Elementary.
"What I think I'm probably most proud of are those parents who would call in and say, 'I need a little help. Could you send a Buddy Pack?'" said Cathy Cox, a home school communicator who coordinates Buddy Packs at Benton. "If a parent is willing to say 'I need help feeding my child,' you know, absolutely. I will do whatever I can because that takes a lot of humility."
Forty percent of students in the Columbia Public School District qualify for free or reduced lunch. Currently, only elementary school students receive Buddy Packs, though Cox said she has received phone calls from middle schools asking whether there was any way their students could get them, too.
The community has reacted well to the Buddy Pack program. Dozens of volunteers come to the food bank every week to assemble them, Kirkpatrick said.
"When they realize the hunger issue, people look over the fact that the parents may have made the wrong choices," she said. "The kids never had a choice. That's the family they were born into. And people get that."