By Caitlin Russell
As children prepare to go back to school this month, United Methodist churches across South Carolina are gearing up to provide weekend backpack food ministries.
More than half the students in S.C. schools participate in free or reduced lunch programs. In some schools, as many as 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, but there are few programs that focus on providing food while school is not in session. National programs are available, but are based only on the poverty classification of the school, not the individual need of the students, which limits their impact.
UMCs across the state have recognized this need and have been creating weekend backpack food ministries to help close the food gap between school lunch on Friday and school breakfast on Monday.
Backpack food ministries exist throughout the state, but differ based on the church involved. On Hilton Head Island, a community organization approached several different churches, including St. Andrew By-The-Sea UMC, about beginning a backpack ministry. In coordination with First Presbyterian of Hilton Head, St. Francis By The Sea Catholic Church, Christ Lutheran Church and Beth Yam Synagogue, St. Andrew By-The-Sea helps to provide 180 children with food every weekend.
At Highland Park UMC, Florence, secondary English teacher Josie Stratton saw a student project in Darlington County with the goal of providing food over the weekend. She thought, If there is a need in Darlington, there must be a need in Florence.
Stratton took the idea to her Sunday school class, which has been able to coordinate with North Vista Elementary and provide 30 students with backpacks of food each week. Highland Park is now looking to expand its ministry by partnering with Help For Kids, a faith-based program out of St. John s Episcopal in Florence.
David Hill, with Cayce UMC, Cayce, partnered with Harvest Hope food bank to support their backpack program. They serve 40 students at R. Earle Davis Elementary, which has one of the highest rates of free and reduced lunch in the state, and they are applying for grants that will allow them to serve more students and more schools in the future.
Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, has also combined their backpack program with Harvest Hope. After delivering backpacks for the last few weeks of a school year, they took the summer to fully develop a program partnering with Providence Lutheran church and Harvest Hope. Since that first year, the program has grown to include four churches providing more than 300 backpacks of food to nine local schools.
Self-described professional volunteer Jennifer Taylor began the backpack ministry at Sharon UMC, Greer, after seeing a kindergarten student trying to take food home from the cafeteria so that he and his 4-year-old brother would have enough to eat over the weekend. At first, Taylor and her family provided food for 10 students each weekend, but this grew into a need greater than they could support alone. She took the ministry to the Rev. Matt Yon at Sharon UMC, who got the entire church involved. Now, the program has spread to 14 local churches of various denominations, including Trinity, St. Paul, Reidville Road, Liberty Hill and Ben Avon UMCs, and the entire school district is sponsored through this ministry.
These ministries vary in size and how they were started, but the goal of providing food to children in need is the same. School officials work to select children who need the program most and strive to provide every form of confidentiality and discretion possible. Churches do not know the names of the students who receive the food, but they know it is appreciated.
St. Andrew By-The-Sea UMC holds monthly packing parties that encourage fellowship along with service, and at Cayce UMC, women come in to pack food every Thursday before Hill delivers bags to schools on Friday mornings.
Highland Park UMC had a special children s sermon one Sunday to introduce the ministry and bless the backpacks of food. Cayce UMC plans to recognize the backpack ministry during their mission Sunday. Other churches have festivals once or twice a year to support the program. Mount Horeb UMC hosts a yearly golf tournament to raise money for the ministry at their church.
Some churches raise money for the backpack ministry that is then used to purchase food from suppliers; others seek food donations from the congregation and community; and still others partner with food banks like Harvest Hope.
Many churches combine these approaches to ensure that as many people as possible can be involved in the program.
Stratton, from Highland Park, describes the ministry as a God thing.
When we look at things that have been put in place, we are fully aware that it is not our ministry; it s God s, Stratton said.