By Kara Witherow, Editor
For about a dollar per child per week, Friendship United Methodist Church in Donalsonville is doing its part to help ease the problem of childhood hunger in Seminole County.
Every Friday morning, volunteers deliver 112 bags of food to nearby Seminole County Elementary School. The bags of healthy, easy-to-eat food help supplement the meals a child may or may not get at home during the weekend.
While many families in the area and across the United States rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Free and Reduced Lunch program to feed their children breakfast and lunch during the school week, what happens on the weekends?
It was through conversations with local teachers that church members learned of the need for supplemental food.
“During the summer I talked to teachers and asked if they really saw children who were coming to school hungry on Mondays,” said Beth Capuson, Friendship UMC’s director of lay ministries. “We had several teachers in our own church that said, yes, there are kids who truly are waiting for that free breakfast on Monday morning and the free lunches that they receive during the week.”
Capuson, who works part time for the church and full time for Seminole County Family Connections, works very closely with the Seminole County school system. It was through her involvement with Seminole County Family Connections and the school system that she learned of other churches that had similar food programs.
The backpack program is just one part of Friendship UMC’s three-prong attack on hunger.
On the third Saturday of each month, the church hosts its Manna Drop, a monthly outreach to the community where residents in need can receive pre-packed boxes of food. Through the church’s food bank, which is open daily, and their Manna Drop, the church serves 250 to 300 families and distributes 10,000 – 12,000 pounds of food each month.
“We are already feeding families,” Capuson said, “and we thought this would be an easy extension of what we’re already doing.”
In its second full year, Friendship UMC’s backpack food program has grown from serving 46 students its first year to 112 today. Nearly one-sixth of Seminole County Elementary School’s students are enrolled.
“The school secretary told me that kids want to be a part of the program and that they’re excited about it,” said program coordinator Steffey Vines. “I guess it means that they’re excited that they’re going to have food over the weekend.”
Vines said that the church has had great cooperation from the school. Students who qualify for the free lunch program were sent home with a letter asking if the school could share their information with the church’s backpack program. Those that responded yes were enrolled and receive a bag of food each Friday.
The church keeps costs low by purchasing food from Second Harvest of South Georgia; the town’s local Harvey’s supermarket helps when additional food is needed.
Although the cost per student is only 85 cents to $1.50 per week, each bag is packed full of nutritious, easy-to-eat food.
Each bag includes two dinners – items like SpaghettiOs, canned ravioli, and Vienna sausages; two breakfasts – oatmeal, Pop Tarts, or granola bars; two drinks – a quart of milk and a bottle of juice or two bottles of juice; and snacks like peanut butter. During the spring and Christmas breaks more food is included.
“We try to include food that the children themselves can prepare, things that young kids can safely prepare and eat themselves,” Vines said.
The church’s youth group has taken the ministry on as its own, Vines and Capuson say. Each Wednesday evening they form an assembly line and pack the bags. Before they are done for the evening, the group prays a blessing over the bags.
After school each Wednesday afternoon, Addie Capuson, a 14-year-old eighth-grade student at Seminole County Middle School, heads to the church to help prepare the food for packing.
She sees firsthand the impact the ministry has on those it serves; a friend’s younger brother receives a bag of food each Friday.
“I like it a lot because it gives kids who don’t get a lot of food on the weekends a chance to eat,” she said. “It makes me more willing and happy to serve God.”
The church’s outreach efforts have energized the congregation, says pastor Rev. Kirk Loyless.
“I think that our food bank and the backpack program together have changed our church,” he said. “We are a more community-minded church than we had been.”
Congregants hated that there were children in their community who didn’t have enough food to eat during the weekends. They rallied behind the ministry, raising money and volunteering.
“We live in a small, rural community, and it’s amazing to think that there are people you know and see every day who are struggling and don’t have food, and that there are kids who don’t have enough to eat,” Vines said. “If a child doesn’t have something to eat it’s not their fault. I don’t want anybody to be hungry, but I especially don’t want a child to be hungry.”