A local nonprofit finally has a place to call home. 

Backpack buddies team in front of their new facility
Ron Robbins (left), Samra Robbins (middle), and Jonathan Halitsky (right) in front of the new Backpack Buddies of Metro Atlanta facility in Dunwoody.

Backpack Buddies of Metro Atlanta, an initiative that gives food insecure students access to food over the weekend when they can’t get meals from school, has a new headquarters. The new facility is located at 2458 Jett Ferry Road, Suite 350, and is expected to be ready to go by the start of the new school year. 

Founders Ronald and Samra Robbins began helping children in need years ago out of their synagogue in Savannah, Ga. They continued their work when they moved to Dunwoody in 2017, working out of Congregation Beth Shalom with a group of volunteers, packing food for 10 students at a local elementary school who were part of the school’s free breakfast and lunch program. 

Nearly five years later, Backpack Buddies has now officially achieved nonprofit status. It has 19 participating organizations, or “buddy organizations,” including churches, temples, and other nonprofits, that help feed close to 1,000 kids in 27 schools over the weekend during the school year, according to Ron. 

Most of these schools, said Samra, are classified as Title I, which is a federal education program that supports low income students throughout the nation. According to a national campaign called No Kid Hungry, as many as 13 million children in the United States live in food insecure homes. 

“That’s really our target,” Samra said. “Because when the weekends happen, these kids don’t have any food.”

Ron said he and Samra have known for a while that their business model would require a facility to house food for their different organizations to come pick up, but they didn’t know if it would be possible. Luckily, one of Backpack Buddies’ board members is a real estate agent and helped them find and lease the new space, giving Backpack Buddies’ multiple participating organizations a one-stop shop. 

“This whole thing came to fruition around January and February,” said Ron, referring to the new space. “We wanted this umbrella organization.” 

Ron said the board provided most of the upfront costs for the new facility. The team then hired a part-time employee to keep track of their inventory – before that, individual organizations had been keeping track themselves – and held a beta test at the end of the 2022 school year with about six of their organizations to see how they could make a new pick-up system work. 

“It set the standard for exactly how we’re going to do it come August,” Ron said. 

Jonathan Halitsky – the aforementioned part-time employee – said that the beta test involved different organizations emailing him and telling him how many kids they would be picking up for and for how many weeks. The organizations would schedule a pick-up slot and then come get their pre-packaged bags from the new facility. Halitsky said that in the future, organizations should be able to order their haul online through the website, making the process even easier. 

Each bag holds 16 servings – enough to feed one kid six meals over the course of a weekend. According to Backpack Buddies’ website, those bags contain five servings of protein, two servings of vegetables, two servings of cereal, two servings of fruit, three servings of snacks, and two servings of juice. Keeping to that system is important, but Halitsky said they try to make sure there’s some variety. 

“We get these large batches of food in, so there can be a tendency to have a bit of sameness,” he said. Now that Halitsky is able to track all the inventory though, he said it’s easy to look and see what a kid received last week so they can try and mix it up. 

Halitsky started working with Backpack Buddies at the beginning of April, and before that was volunteering with one of the buddy organizations out of his synagogue, Congregation B’nai Torah. His mother-in-law, who is a board member for Backpack Buddies of Metro Atlanta, also serves as one of the leads of the Backpack Buddies program at the synagogue. 

“When I found out they were starting this umbrella organization, I helped set up the space,” Halitsky said. “We got to talking, and it became apparent this was a good fit.”

Halitsky hopes that the ability for these organizations to come pick up their food from one centralized location – as opposed to gathering it themselves from different places – will save them a lot of headaches over time, money, and space issues. He also hopes the streamlined nature of the system makes the barrier to entry lower for new organizations that might be interested in joining. 

“If there’s a religious or civic organization that you belong to that isn’t involved in Backpack Buddies, we want to know,” he said. 

Halitsky, Ron, and Samra all said they couldn’t do any of this without volunteers, and hope that having a new home for Backpack Buddies will lead more people to learn about the organization and want to help.

“That’s what’s been great about being in a space like this,” Halitsky said. He said just the other day, a random person walked by the new facility and popped in to check it out. That person ended up making a donation. 

“People have walked by and been like, ‘Hey, what’s going on in here?’” Halitsky said. “You just have to be scrappy and you have to use your resources as much as you can. It’s really a wonder how much people want to help.” 

Writer and Journalist Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.