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Filling the gap to feed hungry students

Public schools in the U.S. are well positioned to make sure that students don't go hungry during the week, thanks to federal lunch programs. But in these tough economic times, it's falling to individuals in Elkhart and other parts of the country with high unemployment rates to try and cover the weekends.

Msnbc.com's Sam Go and NBC News correspondent John Yang report on two such efforts in Elkhart and nearby Kendallville, Ind.:

Math teacher Mark Cockroft is making a difference in Kendallville.

Like Elkhart, Kendallville is battling high unemployment. At South Side Elementary School, two-thirds of the students qualify for subsidized lunches five days a week.

That got Cockroft wondering: What do the students do for meals on the weekends?

So Cockroft enlisted his high school students and together they volunteer at a food program that provides needy South Side kids with backpacks full of food on Fridays to ensure they have enough to eat on the weekends. They return the bags on Mondays, so they can later be refilled.

"We wanted to make sure we involved our high school students so they understood what it's like to give back to the community and help other people," says Cockroft. (Click here to watch John Yang's report on Cockroft and his students: )

A similar backpack food program was started last year at Elkhart's Hawthorne Elementary School, where 96 percent of the 575 third- through sixth-graders qualify for free or subsidized lunches.

Principal Bruce Klonowski says that 50 of his students are currently "taste testers," a term he came up with for participants in the program.

The bags are filled with healthy foods-- including such items as cereal, packaged fruit, apple sauce, beans and franks. The school even solicits feedback from students on which foods they liked most.

Joseph Bauer of Nail Scarred Ministries approached Klonowski about starting the program at Hawthorne Elementary after hearing about the "Food 4 Kids' program from the Food Bank of Northern Indiana.

"The Food Bank showed us things we could start in our community, and when we saw this one, it really tugged at my heart," Bauer said. "I felt like it was God telling me this was something we needed to do."

Bauer and his wife deliver sacks of food to the school, where they're packaged by volunteers. Teachers pick the "taste testers" from students they identify as most in need.

"You can look at the list of who is qualified for free lunches and any of them could get backpacks," says Klonowski. "No question – a high percentage of our students' families have one or both parents unemployed. This program makes sense. Boys and girls come with their wants and needs, but when you're hungry, that changes things."

Bauer is hoping to expand the program to include more students, and has received at least one request to expand "boomerang backpacks" to another elementary school.

Donations for next school year have been hard to come by, says Bauer, as many of those with generous hearts are feeling the pinch. A donation of $5,000 can cover 50 children for an academic year, Bauer says. (Click here to read a piece by WSBT in South Bend on the Hawthorne Elementary program.)