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106 backpacks for the children of Moberly

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Bob Greene tells a story of need -- and of sharing -- in Central Missouri.
Bob Greene tells a story of need -- and of sharing -- in Central Missouri.
  • Central Missouri town of Moberly has program to help children fight hunger
  • Backpacks of food are placed in school hallways for kids to take home
  • Last year, 34 backpacks were needed; this year, need tripled, school staffer says
  • He says in some places, parents are too proud to admit their kids are hungry
  • Hunger
  • Missouri
  • Thanksgiving

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

(CNN) -- Every Friday afternoon, the backpacks are placed carefully on the floors of the hallways in the elementary schools of Moberly, Missouri.

There are 106 of them: 106 backpacks, each of them with no child's name and with no individual owner.

The backpacks tell a story that can both break your heart and make your heart swell with admiration.

And if you ever had any doubt about what the financial mess in the United States is doing to families across the country ...

Well, those 106 backpacks in Moberly will erase those doubts pretty quickly.

"We're a rural community," said Mark Penny, the superintendent of the Moberly Public Schools. "We're pretty much in the middle of the state."

The backpacks are there because Penny and his staff know that without them, the children for whom they are intended might go hungry between the last bell of the day Friday and the first bell Monday morning.

The backpacks -- property of the school -- are filled with food.

The idea is that, when those 106 children leave class on Friday afternoons, they will pick up the backpacks, sling them over their shoulders and casually walk out of the school with their classmates.

The idea is that the children who need the food -- they range in age from kindergartners to fifth-graders -- will blend in with the hundreds of other boys and girls who get enough to eat at home and that the 106 children will feel no stigma.

"We serve breakfast at school, and we serve lunch," said Francine Nichols, the school staff member in charge of the backpack project. "But we began to realize that some of these children go home to houses where they literally may not eat over the weekend. And we couldn't just sit back and not do anything to help them."

So, three years ago, the backpack program started. When the school senses that a child is chronically hungry -- "A lot of times, they just tell their teacher," superintendent Penny said -- the parents are contacted. If the parents are willing to accept the help, the children are told privately that a backpack will be waiting in the hallway Friday afternoon.

"We'll fill each backpack with soup, with ravioli in a can, with canned fruit, with cereal bars, with juice," Francine Nichols said. "We make sure that the food is the kind that a young child can prepare himself or herself, if need be. Because some of these children live in single-parent homes, and when that parent works, not only does it mean that there may not be enough food in the house, but there may not be anyone to fix the meal for the boy or girl."

Moberly is far from the only school district in the country to have a program like this. Quietly, they exist all over the nation. The first one that is often cited was organized in the 1990s by a hunger-relief group known as the Arkansas Rice Depot.

The weekend-food programs are not run by the federal government but by local communities that simply can't stand the idea of children going without enough food.

And in Moberly, the need has increased in the past year, with the national recession and high unemployment.

"The economy has not exactly been a blessing to families lately," Nichols said. "Last November, we had 34 children for whom we prepared the backpacks every Friday. This November it is 106. So that tells you something."

There are some weeks, she said, when she goes to the school storeroom to fill the backpacks, "and I don't know how there will be enough food."

Much of it is provided by the Central Missouri Food Bank in Columbia, 30 miles away. That agency's executive director, Peggy Kirkpatrick, said that one year in one town -- not Moberly -- a 9-year-old boy took a backpack of food home each Friday but admitted to his teacher that he wasn't eating it all. When the teacher asked him why, the boy said:

"Because Christmas vacation is coming."

He was saving the food. He was hoarding it, because he wanted to make it last over the two weeks away from school.

Kirkpatrick said that in some cities, there have been cases where "the pride factor among some parents is so great that they would rather let the child go hungry than accept the backpack." She said, with a mixture of sadness and anger in her voice, that she is also aware, in some cities, of parents taking the food from their children and eating it themselves -- or selling it for drugs.

But in Moberly, Francine Nichols said, some parents whose children have been helped by the backpack program contact the school when they have found work again and say that because they are back on their feet, they no longer need the assistance. "And then they begin to provide food for the program; they bring food to school to help other children," Nichols said.

It's not difficult for a teacher to know when a child comes to school hungry, she said: "Sometimes a girl in kindergarten will take another child's lunchbox. Sometimes a child will go through the trash looking for food."

Superintendent Penny: "A third-grader can be bluntly honest and tell the teacher what is in the cupboard or icebox at home. And, more to the point, what's not there."

Central Missouri is in the breadbasket of the nation, part of a region that produces corn, wheat and soybeans -- seemingly a place of plenty. But there's a lesson in that, Penny said; he said that for anyone around the U.S. who is reading these words and is tempted to assume that this kind of hunger only happens somewhere else:

"Don't assume."

Nichols said: "If people think that children aren't hungry in their community, they're fooling themselves. You just want so badly for these children to go home for the weekend not worrying about whether there will be enough to eat, and to come to school on Monday morning ready to learn."

Meanwhile, with Thanksgiving coming up, next weekend will be a long one.

And so those 106 backpacks will be a little heavier this week.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.