Mary Ann Fulford, a member of Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, helped launch a local version of the Backpack Buddies program at the church after she heard about it about four years ago. The national program provides weekend meals to needy children, and Fulford saw a need in her own community.
The church started by providing food to 15 students at Georgetown East Elementary School in the spring of 2009.
Today, the church provides meals to more than 60 children, at Georgetown East and at a second school, Mills-Parole Elementary in Annapolis.
"Children cannot learn if they don't have food to eat," said the Rev. Henry Green, the pastor of Heritage Baptist.
"Creating a nurturing atmosphere, creating a loving environment and providing food are basic elements of understanding what the education system needs to solve its problems," Green said.
On Thursday, Heritage Baptist was presented the state's first Golden Apple Award — an honor created by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot to recognize volunteers and organizations that assist the state's public education system.
Franchot presented the award to church members at a ceremony at Georgetown East Elementary School. Ultimately, he said, Golden Apple awards will be given to recipients in all 23 Maryland counties as well as Baltimore City.
"It's tough economic times, so we need to reach out to the community," Franchot said after presenting Heritage Baptist staff with the award. "Where we can get volunteers involved in the schools even more than they are, that's the purpose of this."
Heritage Baptist Church is among several organizations that take part in the Backpack Buddies program in Anne Arundel County to provide meals to students who are also enrolled in the schools' free and reduced-price meals programs.
Green said the church does not meet directly with families in the program because of concerns about separation of church and state. Instead, it works with school officials, who identify students in need. He said the program is among several outreach services the church provides, and the need for such programs has risen during the recent economic downturn.
Teresa Tudor, senior manager of the Anne Arundel County public schools' office of school and family partnerships, said students in more than 20 schools in the county receive meals through the program.
"The whole purpose of the program is to be something that will independently sustain a student over the weekend with the food they need," said Tudor.
She said each Friday, students receive a backpack of items that they can prepare at home themselves. Backpacks are used so those who receive the items can remain inconspicuous, Tudor said. Larger amounts of food are provided over the holidays.
Heritage Baptist Church initially funded the program solely through the congregation, but recently has received grants from such donors as the Pennsylvania-based American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell lauded the church's efforts to provide assistance for students and parents, many of whom also depend on the school system to provide healthy meals throughout the week.
"Both schools have very high rates of poverty and kids who are in need," said Maxwell of Georgetown East and Mills Parole. "We talk a lot about free and reduced meals in the school system, but we have to recognize that there are Saturdays and Sundays, too, and there are snow days.
"We are the source when schools are open, but where is that source when schools are not open?" Maxwell said.
"That's the gap that Heritage Baptist Church and other churches we are working with in Anne Arundel County are trying to fill for us," he said.