Hungry children are no longer a tragedy found only in the famine-stricken countries of the globe or the inner cities of North America. Thousands of children in the DC area, including Maryland’s suburban Montgomery County, come to school hungry every morning. Thanks to a federal government program, these children qualify for free and reduced price meals at school.
But what happens to them on the weekend when school’s out?
Many go hungry. But not all, thanks to a program run by Manna Food Center, the largest food bank in Montgomery County. Manna makes sure that more than 2,000 children from area families take home a bag full of donated food after school on Fridays to sustain them and their families through the weekend.
The program, called the Karen Goldberg Smart Sacks Program, it is modeled after one that reportedly began in 1995 at the Arkansas Rice Depot in Little Rock and has been adopted by food banks across the country. A Little Rock school nurse asked for help because hungry students were coming to her with stomachaches and dizziness.
The Feeding America backpack program, which began soon after, feeds about a quarter of a million children nationwide on the weekend. In DC, this program operates through Capital Area Food Bank. Feeding America is one of the largest domestic hunger relief organizations in the US.
Manna partnered with Whole Foods and Montgomery County Public Schools in 2005 to begin the Smart Sacks program. It is an excellent example of businesses, community and religious organizations and schools coming together to solve a problem. Karen A. Goldberg, who was a director of Smart Sacks when it first was launched, died of cancer in 2012. Manna re-named the program in her honor.
Marvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, a Jewish school in Aspen Hill, MD, has been preparing and delivering Smart Sacks for the last six years to Harmony Hills, a nearby public school with 48 children who would otherwise go hungry on the weekend.
Shoshana Trombka, a Hebrew Academy 10th grader who currently runs the school’s Smart Sacks program, organizes an assembly line every week with 4 year olds from the preschool and 8th graders who fill the bags with donated items from Manna. A parent volunteer transports the packed bags to a guidance counselor at the public school who then distributes it to the students.
“We are trying to teach the 4 year olds the importance of looking out for others in their community and have them know that not everyone lives the way they live,” Trombka said. “I think it’s very cool.”
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School also packs lunches and other foods for Manna’s programs every year at the school’s Family in Action Day.
The program began in 17 schools eight years ago. Since the recession, the number of poor kids has grown and Smart Sacks has grown, says Jenna Umbriac, director. School counselors now distribute Smart Sacks in 56 schools every week. Thousands of children go home with bags full of four to six pounds of food.
The menu has evolved from primarily sugary snacks, cereals and juices that appeal to children to include more healthy fare that an entire family can use, Umbriac said. Among other benefits, parents of children in the Goldberg Smart Sacks program become more involved in their children’s schools.
In addition to some treats, the Smart Sacks is phasing in a new menu including pound-bags of brown rice, dry beans and whole-wheat pasta, and large cans of vegetables and fruit. They also collect large cans of tuna, chicken, salmon, plain instant oatmeal, unflavored milk boxes, applesauce, fruit cups, raisins, dried fruit and nuts, granola and cereal bars.
Smart Sacks partners include local high schools, banks, computer organizations, supermarkets, colleges and Girl Scout troops. How can you help or donate? Contact Manna at 301‐424‐1130 or drop off donations Monday through Friday, 8am-4pm at 9311 Gaither Road, Gaithersburg, MD 20877.
Top photo: Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School students and parents sort food for Manna’s programs.