Right now, East Tennesseans can help keep children from going hungry with a simple donation at the the grocery store checkout line.
It's all part of the Backpack Buddy Club 10 campaign that seeks donations for Second Harvest Food Bank's Food for Kids program. Otherwise known as the backpack program, the effort provides children in need with a backpack full of food to take home for the weekend.
"I don't think we could have anticipated the need and how many children in our 18-county service area were going home and not getting the food they needed," said Elaine Streno, Second Harvest's executive director.
Six and a half years ago, the program started in one school in Scott County. There, children didn't have enough to eat outside of school.
Since then, the number of schools and children has ballooned, and so has the cost.
Going into last school year, the Food for Kids program was active in 195 schools, serving 8,877 children spread throughout 18 counties.
This year, those numbers will once again rise to 220 schools and 10,350 children in those 18 counties.
The program is in such demand, it now serves students in summer programs and some schools, including more than 50 children at Christenberry Elementary.
"When you drop (the bags of food) off and you see children who are hungry and just want something they can fix on their own without having to depend on someone else to do it, that really changes you," said Courtney Craft, a Lincoln Memorial University student who has been volunteering with the program for four summers.
"It's a chance for me to give back to people who don't necessarily have everything they need," she said. "That's kind of what draws you to it."
Craft began volunteering under the influence of her aunt, Debbie Heck, who is the bookkeeper at Christenberry.
"We have totally eliminated, with the help of Second Harvest, the fact that there's no hungry kids sitting in the classroom," Heck said.
Heck said there has been a noticeable change in students who now get the food they need both at school and at home. It's particularly apparent when students are able to focus on reading, which is the first class every morning.
Plus, she points out that the parents of the children in the program are hard-working people, doing what they can to support their families.
"Even though the parents are out working, the children may not have easily preparable food at home, something more than a peanut butter sandwich," Heck said. "It's important that even when we're tightening our belt, we've got to remember to turn around and give back and continue to provide for our children."
Heck recalls one story about the gratitude of the children and families involved.
"It was one of the little girl's birthdays, and they said, 'we have nothing in the house to make her a birthday cake out of,'" Heck recalled. "They said, 'look, we can take these little apple cakes,' they said, 'we can take these and put them in a big circle and make a birthday cake out of them, so see you'll have a birthday cake after all.'"
There also is a story that keeps Streno driving to ensure all children in need can be served by the program.
"The ones we focus on the most here to continue to have hope that these children's lives are going to be able to change is the one story where the teacher saw the child in the Dumpster getting hot dogs, they had hot dogs that day, and she realized that he was taking them home for the weekend for his siblings," she said.
But as the economy has suffered and the need has grown, so, too, have the costs. Food prices are up, and so is gas.
But the need is still there.
Streno said the average cost for each school in the Food for Kids program is $3,000. Last year, Second Harvest spent about $800,000 on the program.
This year, it's expected to cost more.
"As proud as we are that we're able to feed those children, it's heartbreaking to know the situation that they're in, and that's why we're appealing to the community to try to help us with this program," she said.
You can help support the effort by making a donation through the Backpack Buddy Club 10 at any Kroger store in the 18-county area that Second Harvest serves from now through Monday, July 23.
A donation of $2 can fill a child's backpack for the weekend.
WBIR, Second Harvest, Kroger and B97.5 are sponsoring the campaign.