Backpack Buddies Fills Weekend Hunger Gap

Backpack Buddies Fills Weekend Hunger Gap

The organization is seeking additional volunteers and groups to help fight food insecurity among children.

Director of Operations Jonathan Halitsky with his daughter and board member Debbie Sonenshine at a recent Community Buddies event. // Credit: Jonathan Ginsberg
Director of Operations Jonathan Halitsky with his daughter and board member Debbie Sonenshine at a recent Community Buddies event. // Credit: Jonathan Ginsberg

When the school year begins in August, Backpack Buddies of Metro Atlanta will be ready to provide weekend meals to 750 food-insecure children in 27 schools throughout the city and surrounding areas.

With the participation of 19 synagogues, churches and community groups — which the organization calls “Community Buddies” — Backpack Buddies will help ensure that all children participating in their program arrive at school each week well-fed and prepared to learn.

Founded by Atlanta natives and Beth Shalom congregants Ronald and Samra Robbins, Backpack Buddies began its work in Atlanta in 2017 when the couple moved back to Atlanta from Savannah, Ga., where they had successfully launched the organization at their synagogue back in 2011.

Founded by Atlanta natives Ronald and Samra Robbins, Backpack Buddies began its work in Atlanta in 2017 when the couple moved back to Atlanta from Savannah, Ga.

The couple believed that Atlanta needed a local chapter to assist food-insecure youth with nutritious weekend meals. Initially, they worked with volunteers from their synagogue to regularly gather and pack food for 10 students who were part of the free breakfast and lunch program at Kingsley Elementary, a Title I school in Dunwoody.

Every Thursday, the synagogue group delivered nutritious, nonperishable meals to the school guidance counselor, who discreetly sent the students home with enough food to last throughout the weekend. Word spread and more volunteers turned out to help.

According to Rabbi Mark Zimmerman of Congregation Beth Shalom, “The community owes a great deal of gratitude to Ronald and Samra Robbins for having the vision and tenacity to see this wonderful mitzvah opportunity through in our community. Not only does it make a tremendous impact on the broader community, but it also involves Beth Shalom members of all ages and allows them to spend a few hours, days, or more volunteering in meaningful ways. I believe this work is truly a holy endeavor.”

Stacked shelves at food distribution center. // Credit: Jonathan Ginsberg

Since its founding, Backpack Buddies has grown exponentially, assembled an impressive board and launched a process to reach many more needy children. In January, the organization signed a lease on a 2,000 square-foot food distribution center in Dunwoody and in February achieved 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit. By April, the center was up and running, with Jonathan Halitsky on board as director of operations.

“We held an Open House in June for our Community Buddies, and the response was unbelievable,” said Ron. “The enthusiasm keeps growing, and our goal is to double the number of children participating and add six additional community organizations by the end of this upcoming school year.”

All orders filled by Backpack Buddies are handled online, and organizations may select 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. All items are single-serve and nonperishable. 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.

Sample contents of a Backpack Buddies weekend bag for food-insecure students.

“We try to give the children variety in the food we provide. For example, we will rotate between sweet and savory on a weekly basis to keep the food interesting to them,” Halitsky explained.

Participating community groups pick up their orders at the back of the Center in Williamsburg Dunwoody Shopping Center each Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Rolling carts are filled by volunteers and are available at the designated times. The groups then take the food back to their own groups and pack individual student bags. Many of them view this as a chance for congregants and group members to socialize, give back to the community and take part in an effort that is larger than themselves.

With the school year beginning in August, the Robbinses said they hope to add additional donors, volunteers and partner organizations to help combat child hunger in the metro Atlanta area.

“Our government has done a great job of feeding breakfast and lunch to schoolchildren during the week. But then the weekend comes and they don’t have food. Particularly here in the metropolitan Atlanta area, where one in five children goes to bed hungry, our work is critical to help combat hunger,” Samra emphasized.

According to Ron, no organization is too small to participate. At the present time, partner synagogues include Ahavath Achim, B’nai Torah, Beth Shalom, Etz Chaim, Gesher L’Torah, Or VeShalom, Shaarei Shamayim, Shearith Israel, Temple Beth Tikvah, Temple Emanu-El, Temple Sinai and The Temple. Skyland United Methodist Church, Kingswood United Methodist Church, Chamblee United Methodist Church, Lenbrook, Link 2, Assistance League of Atlanta and the YMCA Peachtree Corners are among the other Community Buddies.

“We are so delighted to have been among the early locations for Backpack Buddies, and to see how it has grown. It is a remarkable program because it makes a difference in the lives of needy children every week, and our participants can give financially or in a hands-on way. Participation by our congregants also creates special bonds amongst the volunteers here at our synagogue,” said Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah.

Backpack Buddies hopes to add more synagogues, churches, schools and community groups to its team in the 2022-23 school year. In addition, teens looking for community service hours or experience for their upcoming bar and bat mitzvah projects are invited to participate. To create greater awareness about the organization, Backpack Buddies will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Center with Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch later in August.

Those who wish to learn more and volunteer to combat hunger among children may visit the organization’s website at

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