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Their Daughter Knew that Hunger Doesn’t Take the Weekend Off

By COMMUNITY, Generosity, PHILANTHROPY

In the coming weeks, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta is launching a new quarterly magazine: Generosity. Generosity will highlight stories of philanthropy, charity, and community in Jewish Atlanta. As a first look, here is a story from our inaugural issue.

Staci Robbins was a beloved elementary school teacher in DeKalb County whose life ended far too soon—but whose legacy has carried on in a big way. “Staci taught in a Title I school with a 93 percent Hispanic population. She was fluent in Spanish and utterly devoted to her kids,” her father Ron said. “She was named Teacher of the Year at Montclair Elementary School in DeKalb County,” her father said.

Staci’s commitment to her students, even as she battled illness, led her parents to launch an Atlanta metro chapter of Backpack Buddies — a nonprofit that provides six nutritious meals to kids who are food insecure over the weekend. Backpack Buddies is one of several national programs providing much needed weekend nutrition to vulnerable families and children.

A 2021 study in the Economics of Education Review, provides evidence that weekend food programs like Backpack Buddies have a positive effect on academic performance in the form of increased reading test scores, and suggestive evidence they also raise math scores. The effects appear strongest for the youngest and lowest performing students.

“Our daughter had many students who received free and reduced lunch at school but were not eating well over the weekend. Staci knew firsthand about kids who took turns eating over the weekend because there wasn’t enough food at home. She understood that kids who eat poorly or come in hungry on Monday mornings are not primed to learn,” Tamra Robbins said.

Though they lived in Savannah, GA, Ron and Tamra Robbins moved back to Atlanta in 2017 as Staci’s illness progressed. “Even when she was on dialysis, she remained a fierce advocate for her kids and for Backpack Buddies. We established Backpack Buddies of Metro Atlanta in Staci’s memory. It has grown beyond our wildest dreams and has become a meaningful mitzvah in her memory,” her parents said.

They started small at Congregation Beth Shalom where a group of volunteers gathered weekly to pack shelf-stable food items in backpacks that were discretely distributed to 10 kids at nearby Kingsley Elementary School in Dunwoody. Though Kingsley was perceived as an “affluent” school, there was a need. The extent of food insecurity in suburban schools was eye-opening.

Jonathan Halitsky, who is now Backpack Buddies Director of Operations and its only paid staff member, underscores the dimension of the problem. “One in six children in Georgia are hungry. “There is hunger in virtually every public school in the metro area.”

As Ron and Tamra became cheerleaders for Backpack Buddies in Atlanta, they reached out to churches, school groups, and synagogues to grow the volunteer base. “It was a tremendous service opportunity. High school students, and bar/bat mitzvah kids got involved. The phone rang and rang as organizations asked how to get involved and became our Community Partners.  Today the program works with 25 partner organizations.

At first, each organization purchased its own food, packed bags, and delivered to local schools. Terri Bagin, a volunteer, described what happened as Backpack Buddies took off.  “Ron had the idea that Backpack Buddies should cultivate new sources of food donation. He developed relationships with local food banks so Backpack Buddies could receive shelf-stable food donations. Thanks to several “angels’ in the community, Backpack Buddies became a 501c3 in order to receive charitable and food donations. Debbie Levinson, who manages the Helen Marie Stern Fund was an early funder. Eventually, as space for bulk food storage became a challenge, realtor Debbie Sonenshine found an affordable 2,000 square foot space in a strip mall that hadn’t been rented in seven years.

The pandemic threw the organization some curveballs, but by spring of the 21-22 school year, Backpack Buddies and its community partners were processing and packing 6-8 weeks’ worth of food supplies. “We took last summer to really ramp up and acquire more food, refine our operations, and train Community Buddies on the distribution system. Digital ordering means that organizations can choose the most convenient pickup times. Each student’s weekend bag consists of five proteins, two vegetables, two cereals, two fruits, three snacks and two juices. There is no charge for the food, and all items are purchased by Backpack Buddies or donated by charitable food sources. The offerings are varied and include tuna, chicken, ravioli and macaroni and cheese.

Toward the end of the last school year, Backpack Buddies served 800 children a week, and this school year nearly 1250-1500 children a week receive food. “We’d love to be at 2,000 children a week,” Halitsky says with pride. “This will require more donations and an expanded Backpack Buddies partner network.”

Halitsky says, “Now that Backpack Buddies provides its partners with all the food and has perfected its order and delivery system, we are running on a pure donation model. This makes it possible for any school with a need to get involved, and any organization that wants to volunteer, to help. We can’t eradicate hunger, but we’re addressing children’s weekend needs in an efficient and targeted way.”

Staci Robbins would be proud!

Learn more and volunteer to combat hunger among children at www.backpackbuddiesatl.org.