Approximately 75% of students in the Little Rock School District qualify for free or reduced lunch. These students receive lunch and often breakfast at school each day, but on the weekends, they may not have enough food to eat at their homes. When the leadership and parishioners of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church met to discuss community outreach opportunities, they saw this as a problem they could help solve. Working with the staff at the local Robinson Elementary School, for the past two years they have provided backpacks of food for needy children to take home each weekend.
Richard McKay, the youth minister at St. Margaret’s, works with the youth to pack up the food each week and Terry Chacko, a volunteer who helped start the program, delivers the food to Robinson Elementary School. The program allows the youth to learn about the cost of food, as they go shopping to buy supplies, and also gives them an opportunity to serve those in need. Richard says, “Our kids appreciate that it is an elementary school, so it is like their little brothers and sisters. They aren’t seeing them, but they are taking care of them the best they can.”
Although the backpack program is housed with the youth, it is an effort that, as Terry puts it, “has a home in our church.” The Rev. Mary Vano adds, “As a community of faith, we have a role in supporting the well-being of all in our community, and this is one important way that we can serve our neighbors.” An offering basket is laid upon the altar each week and members of the congregation bring supplies like tuna packets with crackers, canned fruit and vegetables, bread, peanut butter, and jelly. The Daughters of the Kings women’s group buys gifts for the kids at Christmas, and everyone works together to make the backpacks extra special around holidays. As the end of the school year approaches, the congregation at St. Margaret’s is planning to send especially full bags home with the kids, who may face a long summer without consistent access to nutritious food.
Many schools, churches, and nonprofits around the state of Arkansas participate in similar backpack programs, which are decentralized and organized on a school-by-school basis. Terry suggests that anyone interested in starting their own backpack program work closely with the PTA and the school administration. The school counselor will identify and reach out to needy families about participating in the program. Terry says that the school reports a real improvement in the children’s performance when they participate in this program. “At Robinson, the receptionist who receives the bags says that when the kids who see her in the hallway, they always ask ‘am I going to get my bag this week?’ This act of service is something that the kids really look forward to and is something that has brought the congregation of St. Margaret’s together in an effort to reach out and help their community.”