Florida churches are faithful and passionate about feeding students through their outreach programs
by Marigrace Doran, Presbytery of St. Augustine communications director | Special to Presbyterian News Service
JACKSONVILLE, Florida — Middleburg Presbyterian Church, a small community church southwest of Jacksonville in Clay County, Florida, participates in a feeding program called Operation Backpack. The outreach program works with the guidance counselor at a nearby elementary school. The counselor identifies the children and families who will receive a backpack filled with healthy child-friendly food.
Middleburg Presbyterian Church currently fills two backpacks a week, with almost all members of the church donating either food or money to purchase the food. They encourage donations by reminding members to “put something extra in your grocery cart.” Filling the backpacks is a community effort and the youth especially enjoy helping. During the pandemic, the church has found new ways to address safety concerns.
Special collections for school supplies and holiday meals are also filled by Middleburg Presbyterian Church youth and members who traditionally adopt a family at Christmas, again with the school identifying the families in need.
As Yvan Kelly, Commissioned Ruling Elder for Middleburg Presbyterian Church, points out, “It might be just a drop in the bucket, but if you’re the drop it makes all the difference in the world.”
Meanwhile, at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, Food4Kids celebrated 10 years of “passionately pursuing a hunger-free community.” They started in March 2010, when church members identified a need and embarked on a mission to feed children at an elementary school in Elkton, Florida, in southern St. Johns County. School counselors and teachers identify students in need and ask families if they would like to participate in the Food4Kids program, which provides food to the students and their siblings.
Supported by Geneva Presbyterian Church and the surrounding community, Food4Kids church and community volunteers accepted donations, shopped, and transported food, which filled weekly backpacks. Each Friday, students took the backpacks full of child-friendly, shelf-stable food home for the weekend and returned the empty backpacks the following week.
Food4Kids has grown over the years. In 2019, Food4Kids provided 5,800 children weekend backpack meals during the school year, an average of 165 children a week, at a cost of $300 per child per year. Then someone asked the question, “Who feeds the children over the summer?” This led to a much-appreciated summer Food4Kids program where boxes and bags of food fed children for 12 weeks.
In March 2020, 10 years after its inception, Food4Kids was challenged as the students went home for spring break and never returned. The school closed due to COVID-19, yet the children’s need for food was even greater.
Knowing that they could not ask families to return backpacks, MPC reverted to the summer model of the Food4Kids program. Wearing masks and socially distanced, volunteers purchased, transported, and packed brown paper bags full of food and provided 336 children weekend meals for 11 weeks. In partnership with the school and the St Johns County School District, meals were delivered by school bus drivers to bus stops for children and families.
During the pandemic, certain foods became scarce, especially proteins. Shelf-stable milk was unavailable. A Memorial Presbyterian Church member arranged for two of the local Dollar General stores to provide fresh milk and bread to Food4Kids participants. The church paid the store and gave the families coupons which could be redeemed at no cost to them for the milk and bread.
As they planned and waited for the opening of school year at the end of August, volunteers purchased new backpacks. Those who felt comfortable volunteering signed up and were ready to go. Then they realized that the logistics of safely sending backpacks back and forth to homes and school every week would have to change. Once again, they reverted to the summer implementation of the Food4Kids program. Thankful for the partnership, they worked with the Dollar General stores to provide fresh milk and bread. They foraged for peanut butter, chicken, tuna, and canned pasta wherever they could to fill the boxes and bags.
Volunteers shopped, purchased, transported, and packed 75 boxes and 75 bags of food, enough to feed 150 children for 12 weeks through the first week in December. By the grace of God’s abundance, they continue to passionately pursue a hunger-free community.”
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Categories: Hunger & Poverty, Matthew 25
Tags: food4kids, geneva presbyterian curch, matthew 25 invitation, memorial presbyterian church st. augustine florida, middleburg presbyterian church middleburg florida, operation backpack, presbytery of st. augustine, yvan kelly
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