One evening each month at St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Urbandale, you’ll find an assembly line of members filling sacks of food that will be placed each Friday in backpacks of children that attend nearby Karen Acres Elementary School. The recipients of these sacks are children that are chronically hungry; they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from, and the concern is greater on weekends when they don’t have access to the federal free and reduced-price meal program. Approximately 50 children at Karen Acres are enrolled in this program. Each food pack contains kid-friendly but nutritious foods – two shelf-stable containers of milk, two juice boxes, one microwave meal, two cereal, one pudding, one portion of peanut butter, and two snacks. It may not seem like lots of food to most of us, but it helps to bridge the “food gap” for these children over the weekend.
This is St. Stephen’s second school year to participate in Backpack Buddies with Karen Acres. Pastor Diana Sickles first told the Social Ministry Committee about the program when she was serving as an interim Pastor, and member Sue Koch enthusiastically followed up with Food Bank of Iowa, the local administrator of the program. To members at St. Stephen’s, it is a great opportunity to partner with their neighborhood elementary school, and has provided a poignant lesson in the needs of some of the youngest neighbors in this generally affluent community.
For members, the monthly routine related to participation is easy and rewarding. Bulk food is picked up at the Food Bank of Iowa, and individual members or groups (e.g. high school youth) sign up to help pack on a regularly designated day during the month. Packs for one month are assembled, and then delivered to Karen Acres for storage and distribution. Each packing session takes less than an hour, and is filled with energy, conversation, and laughter. Since this partnership started, over 2,650 bags have been packed and distributed to children during the school year as well as at a summer program also meeting at Karen Acres.
Backpack Buddies is a nationally recognized program that many communities are using to help meet the needs of chronically hungry children. There is no cost to the children or the school for participation. The Food Bank of Iowa is currently partnered with 48 schools, serving approximately 2,250 elementary students each week. It operates in eleven counties throughout the Food Bank service area. The program is especially important in rural areas where families often do not have access to community food pantries and must drive a greater distance to access emergency food services.
St. Stephen was the first church in the Des Moines area to participate directly with a local school; there are now a total of six churches, including another ELCA church, Prince of Peace in Des Moines. Participation by more churches is needed, and would serve as a real boost to our goal to alleviate childhood hunger in the Synod by 2015.
If you or your congregation is interested in learning more about Backpack Buddies contact Stacey Olson at the Food Bank for additional information; e-mail her at [email protected]foodbankiowa.org or by phone at 515.564.0330. There is also an opportunity to attend a presentation with additional information on Backpack Buddies from the Food Bank of Iowa at the Hope for the Hungry gathering at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines November 10th. Early bird registration is just $15 and the deadline is October 26. For more information on the gathering, visit https://seiasynod.org/synod-news/hope-for-the-hungry/ or click here
Article written by Marybeth Lytle, St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church (Urbandale, IA) Social Ministry Chair and congregation member. Additional information for the article was provided by Stacey Olson, Program Coordinator of Food Bank of Iowa and Pr. Diana Sickles, Founder and Director, Coalition in Support of Hungry Children