November 2011
Mission: The Church's Heartbeat

Harvesters BackSnack Ministry

Thank you for the food you gave me.”
- Edwin  

Hunger is not just a Third World problem. Hunger does not discriminate. Young and elderly, black and white, male and female… the many faces of hunger are different, but the pain and the need are the same. For thousands in our community, hunger is one of life’s daily realities.[1]

In the Diocese of Kansas, congregations large and small are helping to feed hungry children by providing them with nutritious and easy-to-prepare food to take home in a backpack on weekends and school vacations when other resources are not available.
BackPacks, a program offered by Feeding America, is a partnership between the Harvesters food bank, a participating school, and local corporate, civic, or religious organizations. In the Diocese of Kansas, the Episcopal Hunger Relief Network partners with Harvesters, Episcopal Community Services, elementary and middle schools, and Episcopal parishes.

This has been an extremely successful ministry from many aspects. At St. Aidan’s, we started out with a lot of unknowns and have watched it succeed with a lot of patience, organization, many volunteers, and many prayers.

Getting Started
Our first task was to get schools on board with the program. Working with the school district we were able to achieve the support needed to promote this program to Title I schools within the Olathe School District. During our first year (2008-2009) five of the ten eligible schools committed to try this program for their students. St. Aidan’s partnered with New Journey (another church in Olathe) with St. Aidan’s providing backpacks to three schools with 90 students and New Journey two schools with 60 students; in all 150 students. By the end of our first year St. Aidan’s was serving six schools and 345 students.

This year, there are seven participating elementary schools with a total of 305 students. St. Aidan’s is sponsoring four schools and 165 students. New Journey is sponsoring three and 140 students. There are another two elementary schools and one middle school in the district participating in a separate sponsored BackSnack program.

Our second task was to find a location to store the food Harvesters provides for the program. While we were initially unsuccessful in our request to have the food stored within the school district’s space, we were blessed to have St. Francis in Stillwell come forward and offer space in their church. After the completion of our first year, we were able to make arrangements with the school district to receive deliveries and store the BackSnack Food at their Food Production Center Building.

Our third task was to order the supplies needed to run this ministry. Shelving was required for food storage; large plastic tubs were needed to haul the backpacks (we chose 45 gallon tubs with wheels); a dolly for transporting tubs between cars, vans, and buildings; additional plastic bags were needed to provide extra support; Clorox wipes for sanitizing the backpacks; and rubber gloves for volunteers to wear while sanitizing the backpacks. In all a supply budget for about $650.00 was needed to get us up and running; funds from Episcopal Community Services and the Episcopal Hunger Relief Network covered these costs.

The next task was to organize deliveries, pickups, and packing, including putting out a call for volunteers. Initially, coordinating deliveries with Harvesters was a challenge, however we found that patience and flexibility were the best way to overcome that challenge. We also learned that it was simplest to ask each congregation (St. Aidan’s and New Journey) to coordinate their own schedule for filling and delivering the backpacks.

In our congregation, volunteers from St. Aidan’s and Rockhurst College keep the BackSnack ministry running smoothly. Tasks range from receiving the food at St. Francis, to printing and posting the monthly packing and delivery schedules, picking up and delivering the BackSnack tubs, cleaning the returned backpacks, and then filling them with food on Wednesday evenings.

During our first year, we received packing assistance from volunteers who heard about our program outside of our parish walls. When we added a sixth school that first February, one of our parishioners inquired with St. Paul’s AME Church to see if they might be interested in joining us as this new school was located just a few blocks away from them. They were very excited and had six volunteers assist us during the last three months of that year.

One of the routine tasks done in our packing was opening extra plastic bags to place the food in prior to adding it to the packs. After we discovered how time consuming this was, a parishioner recruited a group of people at the senior residence where she lives to do this task for us. They meet weekly for social time and bag opening time and then drop the bags off in time for packing.

On a given week, we estimate that there are about 30-35 volunteers that in one way or another participate with this ministry.

Through additional, occasional funding from Episcopal Community Services and the Episcopal Hunger Relief Network, we are able to provide extra items, such as mini boxes of cereal, fruit snacks, shampoo, and toothpaste purchased through Harvesters. The congregation also runs a H.U.G.S. collection, inviting people to donate hats, underwear, gloves, and scarves that are distributed to the children during the winter months.

Our first year, a church in Tipton, Missouri heard about our collection and sent about 200 hand knitted hats for the children. We’ve since added holiday meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas to a family from each school and offer Christmas gifts through our Adopt –A- Family ministry, in which gifts are donated to one family at each school.

Building Community
Ruth Nelson, the Olathe School district’s assistant director of community development and my initial contact with the schools, was an excellent resource. Through her commitment and support I was able to keep the schools working together and providing support amongst themselves for distributing the packs for this program. It was through her efforts that we were able to eventually use space within the school district’s food production center for the deliveries from Harvesters.

This ministry has been well received. In its first year, the Olathe School District provided certificates to New Journey, St. Francis, and St. Aidan’s recognizing our efforts within the School District’s community. The Olathe Human Relations Commission presented St. Aidan’s with an Organization Award for the BackSnack Program, and in addition, I was presented with a Humanitarian Award. These two awards were in recognition for making a lasting difference in enriching both human rights and diversity within Olathe.

Community recognition aside, one of the most important responses from this program has been the sense of community among all involved. Without Harvesters and their many contributors and sponsors, Episcopal Community Services, the Episcopal Hunger Relief Network, and the many volunteers involved who have contributed their support either financially, through the gift of time, or other various contributions, this program would not exist.

The thank you notes received from the students are heartfelt. The students are extremely grateful and look forward to their weekly packs. I’ve heard from the counselors and nurses at the schools that students often remind them when the packs are needed earlier in the week due to an early dismissal.

This program continues to meet a need in our community as we continue to see an increasing number of families with hunger needs. We have developed relationships that did not exist before, and we are discovering additional outreach opportunities that just seem to grow within this new circle of relationships. This ministry has truly been a blessing to our wonderful children, and has not only reached out to them, but to many within our community. With this ministry, St. Aidan’s is truly upholding its mission: to make disciples by proclaiming Christ as Lord, and by making a difference in our community.  

Fran Wheeler is a deacon at St. Aidan’s Church in Olathe, Kansas. She also serves on the diocese’s outreach committee.

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This article is part of the November 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Mission: The Church's Heartbeat