For the preschool-age children enrolled in the Tubman Head Start Center, family meal planning will be getting just a bit easier -- and cheaper.

Backpack Buddies, a program launched last week, will send a backpack full of nutritious food home every weekend with the 36 children at the center. On Friday, the children's backpacks were stuffed with a box of cereal, a large bottle of juice, canned vegetables, a pound of spaghetti and a jar of sauce. There's enough easy-to-prepare food to feed a family of six. Every six weeks, the menu will rotate.

"These backpacks provide the 'Whew, one less thing to worry about' for our families," said Jena Smith, director of Head Start Howard County.

Sponsored by national and state food banks, Backpack Buddies operates largely through public elementary schools and typically sends children home with only enough food for themselves, instead of the entire family.

According to the 2004 Census, about 1 percent of Howard families live below the poverty line. The median income for the families of the 264 children enrolled in Head Start in Howard County is about $15,200.

Head Start is a federal government-sponsored program that provides comprehensive services for children, up to age 5, of low-income families. The centers operate essentially as day-care centers and preschools and long have provided free meals and snacks for children there. The backpacks program at Tubman is one of a handful to be launched at a Head Start center.

The Howard section of the National Council of Jewish Women provided funding for the program. The food will be supplied by the Maryland Food Bank, which hopes that a successful launch of Backpack Buddies here will spur other sponsors and schools around Maryland to team up and begin programs.

"Without programs like this, all we are is a big warehouse full of food," said Bill Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank.

The program at Tubman will be watched closely to gauge how many volunteers and how much funding would be needed to expand it to the three other Head Start centers in Howard County.

The program costs about $150 to $175 a week. Thirteen teams of volunteers will come each week to fill the backbacks and send the children on their way.

Smith, the director of Head Start, said the program appears to be working well. "I had a parent come up to me and say, 'You mean I really don't have to worry about what I have to do for dinner?' " she said.

With one less thing to fret about, the parents hope to spend a little more time with their children, Smith said.