An Aloma United Methodist Church member told the Rev. Andy Searles to watch a recent episode of the CBS program 60 Minutes.
The segment featured children at nearby Casselberry Elementary School talking about the many times they are hungry due to their parents’ unemployment or underemployment. The girls and boys spoke of empty stomachs preventing them from concentrating at school and not having enough food at home.
Searles, pastor of discipleship ministries at the church, could not stop thinking about how to assist the children. He began brainstorming with the Casselberry Elementary School principal about ways to get involved. A pantry was established in the cafeteria so children could take food home for dinner. A clothing ministry was set up too.
Searles also serves on a newly created task force that includes other churches, the police department, city officials and non-profit organizations. They want to eradicate homelessness and hunger in Casselberry within two years.
Searles’ congregation supports that goal. This summer the church started participating in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). The SFSP provides free, nutritious meals and snacks to help children in low-income areas get the food they need throughout the summer when they are out of school.
The program is administered at Casselberry Elementary School with church volunteers helping on Wednesdays, their designated day. The volunteers provide an activity between breakfast and lunch to keep the children involved.
Of the 130 children signed up, Searles said, about 40 to 50 attend each day for breakfast and lunch.
“I was really embarrassed that I didn’t know the same children who were walking down the corridor with my daughter were living like this,” Searles said. “This childhood hunger is a pretty big deal. I guess I was just apathetic to it.”
Now that the children’s basic needs are being addressed there is a big difference in their attitudes, Searles said.
“I have seen the kids just light up knowing they feel loved,” Searles continued. “It’s been amazing for us too. It feels good to know no child in our area has to go hungry this summer.”
Churches help close summer food gap
According to Feeding America, a national non-profit organization, the state of Florida ranked in the top 10 states for greatest childhood food insecurity from 2006-2008. It also ranked second among states for highest increases in food insecurity during 2010.
More than one million Florida children receive free or reduced-price school meals. In the summer, those children do not have access to food they typically would receive at school.
Numerous Florida Conference churches are working to bridge that gap by participating in the SFSP. One SFSP sponsor is Florida Impact, which handles administrative and financial responsibilities and works with vendors who provide the meals.
The Florida Conference has been a supporter of Florida Impact – a Tallahassee-based advocacy group that seeks to help communities end hunger and poverty – since its inception in 1979.
First United Methodist Church in Lakeland has been a site for the SFSP since 2005. Corey Jones, director of Neighborhood Ministries at the church, said many of the 80 children who participated in the SFSP attended the church’s after-school program.
“Many children face days without an adequate number of meals and nutrients,” Jones said. “We are so fortunate to receive 40 breakfasts and 80 lunches every day from the Polk County Schools SFSP. Without this program, Outreach Florida would not be able to provide one to two daily nutritious meals for these children, removing a vital aspect of this ministry.”
First United Methodist Church in Tarpon Springs also works to help children receive summer meals. At the same time the church was operating a paid summer program for preschool to middle school aged children, they provided free lunch to children from 12 to 1 p.m.
Bonnie Fasce, assistant director to the school-age program, said the church has been a SFSP for five years.
“It’s so difficult for parents who are barely getting by to have to provide that extra meal during the summer, Fasce said. “We realized there was a need to reach out to our neighbors, to let them know we are here for them.”
The Rev. Dr. Bill Bailey, pastor at Rogers United Methodist Church in Bradenton, estimates that the amount of people searching for food assistance has quadrupled since the economy began to falter.
The church operates a food bank where those who can’t afford food can receive groceries, and has participated in the SFSP for four years. About 40 children participated in the program this year.
“Feeding the hungry is one of the things Jesus called us to do,” Bailey said. “I feel many churches, especially those in an area with a high number of free lunches, need to be feeding sites. This is really a mission field.”
Lynette Fields, executive director of servant ministry at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, said St. Luke’s helps a school located about 25 miles from the church because the area surrounding the church does not have a high percentage of children who receive free and reduced-price lunches.
These volunteers served at Mollie Ray Elementary School so it could become a summer feeding site with 30 to 90 children daily. The partnership happened because the church already had volunteers serving in the classrooms and at activities during the school year, Fields said.
As many as 100 volunteers from the church wanted to support the program, Fields said, noting that a similar program could occur in other communities that surround churches with large memberships. Fields also serves as the Conference’s appointee to the core advisory group for Florida Partnership to End Childhood Hunger.
“We want conference-wide participation,” Fields said. “Even if a church can’t commit to the entire summer, do whatever level you’re comfortable providing. We truly can provide a lot more food to a lot more hungry children throughout our state. When we are able to end children being hungry, we want our churches to be able to say they were a part of it.”
Melinda Trotti, director of the conference’s justice and outreach ministries, is responsible for helping coordinate the local church and conference response to children’s issues.
“It’s easy to think the hunger situation isn’t dire but the reality is there are children who don’t have food to eat,” Trotti said. “I was at an SFSP in Stuart and as we were putting our plastic utensils in the trash, a little girl asked if she could keep them to take home because they didn’t have a lot at home. We have those type situations in every community. We must meet an immediate need.”
Trotti encouraged churches to participate in the SFSP by partnering with community groups and other churches.
“There is no reason why every church in our conference shouldn’t be involved,” Trotti said. “John Wesley talked about the church losing its soul by losing contact with the poor. We need to regain that part of our heritage. We need to get to know people in our communities who need our help.”
For more information about how to become involved, visit www.flimpact.org.