By Carole Todd

We know that when kids are hungry, they struggle to learn. And when kids don’t learn, they can struggle in life. In Virginia, 1 out of 8 children are hungry. That means that 1 out of 8 children may not have the opportunity to live the best, most productive life possible.

Thanks to a group of hard-working volunteers from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Wytheville, families who need some extra food support at the Wytheville Minnick School can get a “lunch bag” filled with food for each weekend during the school year and during the summer session. And the best part about the program is that there is no eligibility requirement. If a family wants food, a family gets food.

“It’s difficult for hungry children to learn,” says Wytheville Minnick School Principal Cynthia Preuss. “Luther’s Lunch Bag helps us take care of the whole child.” She adds that about half of the school’s children receives the bags.

Each week volunteers assemble at the church to pack about 19 bags of food, which could rise to 26 or more before the year ends, says Lisa Alderman, member of the volunteer group. “The food corresponds with one of five menus,” says Judy Beaver, “is non-perishable and easy to fix – and most importantly family friendly.” Two favorites? Beanee Weenees and green beans. On long holidays volunteers pack additional treats in the bags.

Long-time church member and Luther Lunch Bag volunteer Maxine Dellinger jokes, “We’re Lutherans, we feed people.”

After the bags are packed, Dellinger brings them to the school, where Ashley Wright, the school’s counselor, oversees distribution. The core group of volunteers – Alderman, Dellinger, Nancy Johnson, Judy Beaver, Janice Shriver, Ann Laing, Anne B. Crockett Stark, Melissa Crockett, and Penny Matthews – makes sure that everything goes smoothly, from menu planning to overseeing volunteers to purchasing food to packing and delivery.

From left: Lisa Alderman, Judy Beaver, Janice Shriver, Maxine Dellinger, Nancy Jackson

From left: Lisa Alderman, Judy Beaver, Janice Shriver, Maxine Dellinger, Nancy Jackson

The scale is large and looks to keep growing. Last year 20 volunteers put in over 800 hours to pack 1,100 bags of food. Before the program started in July 2015, Holy Trinity volunteers looked to a couple of local programs, including the Micah’s Backpack program — a similar food ministry at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Blacksburg — for inspiration, administration and logistics. Ending childhood hunger is a big focus of the Virginia Synod, says LFS Development Coordinator Leah Hatcher, who serves on the Synod’s Virginia Feeds Kids task force. The task force was formed in 2014 to identify communities and children at greatest risk, educate Virginians about childhood hunger, and to encourage and advocate for expanded summer, weekend and breakfast programs in schools.

Although a grocery cart in the foyer of Holy Trinity fills up fast, the group still needs to supplement the bags by buying items from local stores and big boxes. A grant from Thrivent helps as does generous support from church members and contributions from local merchants. Ideally, the group would like to see the Lunch Bag program be self-sustaining. “Currently Luther’s Lunch Bag requires about $5,000 to operate, and the fund-raising and grant-writing required to support it also requires our volunteers’ time,” says Janice Shriver.

The food program is not the only way that Holy Trinity supports the Minnick School. They compile goodie bags for staff at Thanksgiving and other times throughout the school year. And, the congregation has welcomed students to the church to work as part of the school’s Community-Based Instruction program. Preuss says that the congregation’s support is amazing: “These are the kind of partners that you dream of.”

The kids receiving food? They just say, “You rock.”

Photo caption: Nancy Jackson, Maxine Dellinger, Lisa Alderman, Janice Shriver and Judy Beaver in the Luther Lunch Bag “trolley.”