Passionately Feeding Children with Collaborative Outreach Programs

A Matthew 25 Moment

Many of our presbytery’s congregations work with schools to help feed children who go hungry over the weekend or during school holidays. Two of our congregations are emphasizing their Food4Kids Backpack program as part of their Matthew 25 commitment to eradicate systemic poverty. This Matthew 25 Moment highlights the ministries of Middleburg Presbyterian Church and Memorial Presbyterian Church which have both had long-term Food4Kids outreach programs. While the two churches differ in membership size, compassion to feed hungry children fuels their commitment to these outreach programs and we are pleased to highlight their shared passions.

Middleburg Presbyterian Church, Middleburg

Middleburg Presbyterian Church, a small community church in Clay County, participates in a feeding program called Operation Backpack. The outreach program works with the guidance counselor at a nearby elementary school that has a low socioeconomic status. The counselor identifies the children / families that will receive a backpack filled with healthy child-friendly food. See the photo below for the types of food usually included in the backpack.

Middleburg Presbyterian Church currently fills two backpacks a week, with almost all members 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 PC youth and members and they try to adopt a family at Christmas time, 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.”  Thanks to all the youth and members of this Middleburg congregation who participate in this program!

Memorial Presbyterian Church, St. Augustine

Meanwhile, at Memorial Presbyterian Church (MPC) in St. Augustine, Food4Kids celebrated 10 years of “passionately pursuing a hunger free community.” They started in March 2010, when MPC members identified a need, and embarked on a mission to feed children at an elementary school in Elkton, Florida, one of the lowest socioeconomic areas 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. On 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, Food Kids 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 COVID19, 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. Volunteers, wearing masks and socially distanced, 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. An MPC 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, and those volunteers who felt comfortable volunteering signed up, and they 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 which is enough to feed 150 children for 12 weeks, through the first week in December. And by the grace of God’s abundance, as they continue to “passionately pursue a hunger free community,” may the kingdom of God expand and the causes of our food insecurity issues be reduced.

Thanks Memorial Presbyterian Church (and your collaborative partners) for being willing to do your part to “eradicate systemic poverty” as a Matthew 25 congregation.

Thanks to Cindy Christian of Middleburg Presbyterian Church, and Alice Baresi and Barbara Alford of Memorial Presbyterian Church for their assistance with this story.