Summer is a happy time for most children, but it creates an unhealthy gap for those who rely upon their school to provide daily meals. Throughout Florida, many United Methodist churches are pitching in to help ensure that young students in low-income families remain well fed during the summer recess.
Again this summer, Killearn UMC in Tallahassee has partnered with nearby Ruediger Elementary to fill the summer food gap in several ways.
"They (the school) have a school-year program where they send children home with backpacks full of food on Fridays, so they can eat over the weekend," said Lori Simpson Keller, Killearn's associate director of children's ministries. "Of course, they are concerned about those children and their families over the summer, when the children aren't going to school and getting free breakfast, free lunch and then no food to take home on Friday," she said.
|A Killearn UMC, Tallahassee, member's van is filled to the brim with food staples to for their summer meal program. - Photo courtesy Lori Keller|
"We partnered with them last summer to provide them with non-perishable food items they could fill the backpacks with throughout the summer," said Keller. "And we had that be our mission focus for our vacation Bible school, and we're going to do it again this year."
A fund raiser to provide additional food staples will also help. "We also raised money to buy grocery-store gift cards, so they could be included with the grocery bags during the summer, so the families can get fresh foods like milk, meat and other perishables," said Keller, a 17-year member of the church.
The effort was launched after a vacation Bible school volunteer learned of the school's backpack program and concerns about the summer lapse.
"She mentioned (the program) to us, (and asked) could that possibly be our mission focus for VBS. And we said, 'Absolutely.'"
Killearn members "were already in the process of thinking through and praying about adopting a local elementary school so that we could help them however they needed," Keller said. "So this was perfect. We have established this relationship with the elementary school and we're doing other things for them, as well."
Of Ruediger's 480 students, 99.4 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches. That is significantly higher than the state average of 61.9 percent. To qualify for the free lunch program, a family of two must earn less than $20,449 annually.
Killearn's class of 400 vacation Bible school students brought in canned goods and other non-perishables during the week-long food drive. On two days of the VBS session, elementary-age students were bused the six miles to Ruediger to sort and bag food into portions suitable for providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for families of differing sizes.
In rural Dixie County, a similar vacation Bible school project at Old Town UMC has been helping fill the gap in that small town for many years. Member Mary Lou Peters, a former foster parent with experience with food safety procedures, has headed that church's program for a decade, serving food provided by the state.
"They are learning about God in vacation Bible school, and they're there during suppertime," she said. "We distribute food to the children at 5 o'clock, and we make sure they get whatever they want, seconds or thirds or whatever."
First United Methodist Church of Lakeland has been providing a summer meal program for a decade. Every day during the church's free six-week summer program, which this year begins June 15, some 60 children eat breakfast and lunch.
Under the arrangement, Polk County Schools delivers the food, which is provided by the state. "So many of the kids in Polk County don't have access to food all the time, especially when school is out during the summer," said Sean Hults, associate director of neighborhood ministries.
For children from families living below the poverty level, "the meals they get at school are sometimes the only consistent meals they get during the day," he said. "That becomes a real problem for those kids in summertime, when they're no longer getting school breakfast and school lunch." The church hires about a dozen college students to help with the summer program. Additionally, a small number of children not enrolled in the summer program visit the site for free breakfast or lunch.
A variety of similar food-assistance programs for needy children operate at other UMC sites, including First UMC of Orlando. There, parishioners bring in non-perishables that are donated to replenish pantries at local schools. And many UMCs across the state will be collecting food donations at their vacation Bible schools as the summer goes on, so the efforts to feed the hungry will continue.