Backpack Ministry volunteers unload bags of food at Ginter Park Elementary with Krystle Cook, the school’s community coordinator. This program ensures 36 students eat over the weekend.
Even as Congressional Republicans were trying to take food from the mouths of children, Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe worked diligently to ensure that kids in the Commonwealth from low-income families would be fed before and during school, five days a week.
“We cannot have 13 million hungry children in the United States of America,” she famously said. “It doesn’t need to be that way. We have enough food to feed ourselves and the world.” Thanks to her, the number of public schools in Virginia now offering universal free breakfast and lunch has increased by more than 300 percent.
The former First Lady began her campaign five years ago, at about the same time a local Northside congregation decided to guarantee that children would have enough food to tide them over on weekends. Ginter Park Baptist Church partnered with Ginter Park Elementary School and created The Weekend Backpack Ministry.
These days grocery bags have replaced the backpacks for practical reasons. “We started with backpacks, but keeping up with whose backpack belonged to who and trying to get them back from the kids was impossible,” says Keene Irwin, lead coordinator for the backpack ministry. “It was just more efficient for us to do it with the brown paper bags.”
Every week for the past five years now, the relatively small congregation of Ginter Park Baptist Church (the church has about fifty members) packs up bags of food for students at Ginter Park Elementary School. “The church works in conjunction with the school to provide thirty-six bags of food every weekend during the school year,” Keene says. “And during summer school we do fifteen bags.”
Each bag contains contain six meals, two snacks and five beverages. “An example would be cereal, milk, fresh fruit, oatmeal, breakfast bars, apple juice, peanut butter, a sleeve of crackers, fruit juice, mac and cheese, apple sauce, water, Hormel little entrée, chocolate milk, chicken soup, a can of vegetables, chips, and microwaved popcorn,” says Keene. “This menu has been looked at by the school, by the principal and community coordinator and they agree with us that these are good foods for the kids to have so we try to keep the food as nutritious as possible. And with things like peanut butter, we send the biggest jar we can find so the kids can share this with their family.”
It’s seems unimaginable in a country where the average salary of an S&P 500 CEO is $12 million a year, that any child would ever go hungry. But they do.
“We don’t know the hunger that they know,” Keene says. “They are not aware once they leave school whether there’s going to be a meal for them or not. So we are trying to provide those meals for over the weekend when they’re not in school and they don’t have their breakfast and they don’t have their lunch.”
Each bag contains about $15 worth of groceries, which is roughly $570 for a year’s worth of food per student. Not much really when you consider this can stave off hunger through every weekend of the year for one child.
This Backpack Program keeps all students anonymous. “Confidentiality is important for us, and we realize it is for the school,” says Keene. “We want dignity for the families, we want confidentiality for the students. The principal and community coordinator choose the children that will be in the program. We don’t know any of the children.”
Every member of this small faith community assists with this program. They comply with the instructions of Christ to feed the hungry and suffer the children. And several years back, this same Baptist Church bucked the hierarchy by doing what was right when they ordained an openly gay man as their minister.
”This backpack program is church wide,” Keene says. “Everybody’s got a little piece in this program. We all take turns shopping and delivering the bags to the school.”
At this point, the church is only able to supply 36 bags of groceries each week, though the principal has indicated that the school could use an additional 25 bags.
“That’s part of the reason I’m doing this interview,” says Keene. “I would like for other people to see the possibility of this program. I’m hoping that somebody’s going to read this article and say, ‘You know that’s something I can do too through my church or my book club.”
And citywide, there are children in need at schools where no Backpack Program exists.
On a bright and cloudless All Saints Day, a minivan pulled into the parking lot of Ginter Park Elementary School and parked near the side entrance. Krystle Cook, the school’s community coordinator, and Noelia Gonzalez, another school employee, rolled out two large, double-tiered carts. And then four congregants from Ginter Park Baptist Church—Dixie Leathers, Ann Keller, and Paul and Keene Irwin—piled out of the minivan, opened the back doors, sprung open the hatchback, and began handing off brown paper bags from one volunteer to the next until the bags reached the carts. It was like a bucket brigade, but they weren’t passing along water to quench flames, they handed off food to fill empty bellies.
“We don’t want to have to do this,” Keen says. “We don’t want children to be hungry, but we are thankful that we are a positon to be able to do it, that we have the money, that we have the hands, that we have the community support. If anyone has any questions about starting a program or helping us out they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org “