As plastic bags are passed down a makeshift assembly line, volunteers stuff them with juice, pudding, cereal bars, fruit snacks and other kid-friendly treats.
Members of Arborlawn United Methodist Church in Fort Worth are filling snack sacks for needy elementary and middle-school students who might not have access to meals when they go home.
"I think a lot of people don't understand how many children are at risk ... (and) not getting fed," said Veronica "Ronnie" Crowley, an Arborlawn member who came up with the idea for a "snack sack" ministry in 2004.
Many students who receive the snacks qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch in school cafeterias. However, their after-school nutrition sometimes depends on family economics.
"Imagine, as a child, to go home every night after school, and you're not going to eat until you get breakfast the next morning," said Crowley. "Then you have the weekend, and that's an even bigger stretch."
Empty stomachs, poor grades
Church members deliver about 60 snack sacks every week to three schools, where teachers identify which students could use them the most. Every Friday, school counselors discreetly slip the bags into students' backpacks.
The counselors praise the ministry, explaining that empty stomachs can lead to poor grades.
"If children are hungry, they can't learn very well," said Lane Poole, a counselor at Oakmont Elementary School, located near the church. "And if they're thinking about their stomach growling, then they don't do very well in school at all."
Schools also receive enough snack sacks to send home to other hungry family members. "A lot of them have siblings that are not in school yet, maybe 2 or 3 years old," said Poole. "And we give them a snack sack for their little brothers and sisters."
Most of the food is donated by Arborlawn members, but several businesses also hold food drives to support the ministry. There's no shortage of volunteers to pack the bags.
"I love getting together with different people from the congregation and packing snack sacks. It's something everybody enjoys," said church member Kristi Burdette. "Kids having food to eat is something that everybody can feel great about."
Karen Fox, who helped Crowley start the ministry, said hungry children can be found even in schools that appear affluent. "If you ask most of the parents at Tanglewood Elementary School, they would tell you absolutely, no way, there's not a kid here (who is hungry.) And there are kids there," she said.
About 12 million children in the United States — or 17 percent — lived in "food insecure" households in 2005, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. Food insecurity means there is not always enough food in the household for a healthy, active life.
"I don't think there should be any child out there who goes hungry. We have such wealth here," said Crowley.
The snack sack ministry operates anonymously, so church members never meet the children they help. However, Holley Williams, who oversees the program now, says students often write notes of thanks. "One little girl wrote that she was moving out of town and she said, 'Is there any way you can still bring me snack sacks?'" recalls Williams.
Arborlawn members hope other congregations will start similar ministries. A former member who moved to nearby Cleburne started a similar project there in 2006.
Crowley hopes the snacks will feed more than empty stomachs.
"If we can make that small difference, make that child loved in that small way," she said, "then maybe that will help them in the future."
*Gordon is a freelance writer and producer in Marshall, Texas.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published Nov. 14, 2007.