As president of Area Interfaith Outreach, Sherry Cobb knew people in Knox County were hungry — but it was not until a survey of area schools was done about a year ago that she realized how serious the problem really was.

"The numbers were staggering," Cobb said during a presentation on hunger in Knox County held Aug. 13 at Camden Public Library. "It showed us the two schools across the street from our pantry were some of the worst."

In eight of the 10 schools in Regional School Unit 13, half of the students oftentimes miss meals because there is no food. At South Elementary School, 91 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches; at Rockland District Middle School, it's 65 percent. At Camden-Rockport Elementary, it's 31 percent.

Knowing these children were not getting the food they needed during the weekend when they were not in school, Cobb said she knew something had to be done.

The federal school lunch and breakfast program feeds these kids on school days, but that stops on weekends. Teachers and school nurses see the difference on Mondays: hungry bodies don’t develop as they should and are frequently sick. Hungry children cannot concentrate in school and are more frequently absent. Hunger is often invisible — or looks like lethargy, inattention or disruptive behavior, according to information on knoxadoptabackpack.org.

Beginning this school year, 200 children at South School and RDMS will be sent home with enough food for meals for the weekend. Cobb said 299 families were eligible for the weekend backpack program, but in order to get this program off the ground this school year, Cobb said, AIO could only commit to 200. There is some "wiggle room" in those figures and the plan is to expand the program to more schools, including those in the Camden area, in the future, she said. Similar programs in the Bath and Wiscasset areas feed about 60 families each weekend.

A majority of the local families involved in the program are among the working class — the parents are employed, and make too much to qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which was once called food stamps, Cobb said. She also said a number of retired grandparents who care for their grandchildren, and disabled parents are also included in the program.

Each week, volunteers will package the food, which is stored at Nativity Lutheran Church on Old County Road in Rockport, and it will be delivered to South School and RDMS.

On Fridays, when the children are out of the classroom, school staff will place bags of food into children's backpacks for them to take home for the weekend: breakfasts, lunches, dinners, nutritious snacks, and the makings for one family meal plus a recipe.

There is a four-week rotating menu that includes pasta, rices, soups, vegetables, fruits, milk and sun butter, which is a peanut butter alternative.

In addition, Cobb said, she has seen a 35 percent increase each year in the number of people seeking food at AIO's pantry on Thomaston Street. She said it used to be 25 to 30 families per day, but last year the pantry saw between 40 and 45, and sometimes up to 60 families per day.

"It's very difficult to keep the shelves full," Cobb said.

Pauline Johnstone, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Camden Area Christian Food Pantry, also said it has seen an increase in need. She said the pantry, located on Mount Battie Street, serves an average of 420 families per month, which is about 1,086 people.

To increase public understanding of the extent of food insecurity in local communities, AIO, in partnership with other area food pantries, soup kitchens, and Knox County Meals on Wheels, has been holding presentations at area libraries, with the first Aug. 13 in Camden.

The next presentation is set for Tuesday, Aug. 25, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Rockland Public Library, located at 80 Union St. The presentation includes an AIO video created by Maine Media Workshops about the impact of hunger on local schoolchildren, as well as a documentary, "A Place at the Table," featuring actor Jeff Bridges.

To keep the backpack program afloat, AIO needs volunteers to help pack and deliver the food to the schools as well as monetary contributions, as it costs $225 per year per child.

For more information about how to get involved or to donate, go to knoxadoptabackpack.org.

Courier Publications Editor Kim Lincoln can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at klincoln@villagesoup.com.