September 15, 2016 04:30 PM

When some children who receive free or reduced school lunch go home on Friday afternoons, they may not eat much – if at all – until they return to school the following Monday.

On Thursday, in an effort to combat childhood hunger, mayors in 75 cities across the country took part in the third annual National Blessings in a Backpack Day, packing bags of food for students to take home on Fridays so they will have enough to eat over the weekend.

“We know there are 31 million kids on the free or reduced lunch program,” says Richard Gordon, who is on the non-profit’s board of directors. “We don’t have hard numbers on how many kids don’t have food on the weekends, but we know that millions of children go hungry.

“I don’t think a 7-or 8-year-old should have to worry about food.”

That’s where Blessings in a Backpack comes in.

PEOPLE first introduced its readers to the organization in 2012 as part of the PEOPLE First: Help Feed a Child initiative, which helped to raise more than $1.5 million in direct donations and local funds to start new community programs, says Gordon.

Through the Blessings in a Backpack program, each week, hundreds of volunteers in communities across the country pack and deliver food to schools for students to take home over the weekend.

The program started with just two schools in 2005. Today it serves nearly 88,000 students in 960 schools.

School administrators, teachers, parents – and mostly children – are grateful for the help they receive from the program, says Gordon.

Brunswick, Georgia, volunteers

“We get a lot of thank-you letters from the kids, which are nothing short of beautiful and endearing. But for a 7-or 8-year-old to write you a letter saying, ‘I’ve been hungry and thanks to you I had something to eat,’ is heartbreaking.”

The program is doing more than just feeding children, he says. Blessings conducted a survey showing that 59 percent of students find it is easier to learn at school, according to the Blessings in a Backpack website.

“You can’t learn if you’re hungry,” he says. “You can’t focus and concentrate if you’re hungry.”

The survey also showed that 60 percent of students in the program say they do not get in trouble as much; 78 percent feel cared for by their community; 71 percent feel they are helping their family, and 60 percent say that their school attendance is better, according to the Blessings in a Backpack website.

Gordon came up with the idea to have mayors across the country pack and deliver food for the program three years ago, to help get the word out about the program.

“The mayors have been wonderful,” he says. “The mayors should be proud of what they do. It makes me feel good knowing our leaders are so personally involved like this.”

Gordon’s hope is to feed every child in America who doesn’t have enough to eat. But he needs help to do that.

“The more people we get involved, the more children we get to feed. We can’t do this by ourselves. We need people to say, ‘This is awful that 31 million kids are going hungry. It’s just wrong.’ ”

To learn more about donating to Blessings in a Backpack or starting a program in your community, visit www.blessingsinabackpack.org.

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