CAMBRIDGE – When most people say, “There’s nothing to eat in the house,” they mean there’s nothing they like. But for some of the most dependent and helpless of Dorchester’s residents – children – it means there really is nothing.
And that’s a true problem for a growing child, especially one who gets most of his food from meals during school.
Members of Friendship Church in East New Market spotted the issue about 10 years ago, and began packing food for children at Warwick Elementary School. The movement spread over the years, until now there are three other groups feeding needy children.
Grace United Methodist Church in Cambridge is one, and Good Neighbors from Old Trinity Episcopal Church focuses on youngsters in South Dorchester.
Meals ’til Monday is the fourth. Founded by Leslie Bishop last year, the project got off to a fast start in meeting local appetites.
Children in poverty
The so-called “Backpack Programs” take place in the schools, but are not operated by educators.
“It’s not really a school thing,” Dorchester County Community Liaison Valerie Goff said. “But we facilitate it.”
Part of the school’s support is the provision of free breakfast and lunch to all the students attending the schools, regardless of family income. But at some local schools, the great majority of students do qualify.
At Choptank Elementary, for instance, 92 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced meals, according to information from the Dorchester County Board of Education. But that wasn’t enough to help some – under the previous arrangement, parents or guardians had to fill out forms for their children to receive free meals at school.
Sometimes they didn’t, and the youngsters didn’t get the free meals.
Then last September, Dorchester reached the level required for a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) designation. Now, all students in the county can get the free meals, no questions asked, without anyone having to complete paperwork.
“CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications,” a statement on the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service webside says. “Instead, schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).”
But that doesn’t help them on weekends or other days when there is no class.
Mary Dennard-Turner is a member of Faith United Methodist Church in East New Market. About a decade ago, “We put together an Evangelical Team,” she said, to perform acts of charity such as visiting the sick.
“We needed a project,” she said.
She and other congregants at the church learned about the struggles of local children who didn’t have enough to eat when they weren’t in school. “So this came about,” she said. “There are kids in this county who are hungry. It’s hurtful.”
After beginning at Warwick Elementary School, “We found that Hurlock Elementary School had a bigger need,” Ms. Dennard-Turner said, adding that another group took over the meals at Warwick.
The Faith team started at Hurlock Elementary with 50-60 bags every week. “What we give them is nutritious,” she said. The bags include two breakfasts, two dinners, fruit and snacks, up to 12 items per weekend.
Mission work at home
Meals ’til Monday founder Leslie Bishop’s mother had been a strong supporter of the national organization No Kids Hungry. After she passed away, Ms. Bishop decided to honor her memory by continuing her work with children.
The group has been busy ever since.
Tina Weber is the mother of a student at Maple Elementary School. She volunteers with Meals ’til Monday.
“I was at Maple so much that God open up the doors allowing me to work at Maple and to be in the class room with these kids,” Ms. Weber said. “Maple became my mission field. Some may go out of country to do their mission, but we have a mission in our own back yard.”
Fellow volunteer Julie Crain had a similar motivation. “Since I’ve been involved with international missions, I wanted something closer to home,” she said.
The women and their colleagues found there was plenty to do in Dorchester County. Ms. Weber’s desire to help hardened into determination when she was confronted by a hungry child one day in her church.
“During vacation Bible school, a little pre-kindergarten boy in my group always looking for me, to tell me no one at home fed him all day with tears in his eyes,” she said. “It broke me, made me mad - how can parents not feed their child?”
Need is increasing
The need at Maple started with a couple dozen little ones, and quickly rose to 50. Ms. Weber said she expects the number at Maple alone – where 500 children attend classes – to rise soon to 60.
Meals ’til Monday is also reaching out to other schools in Dorchester.
“We’re up to 152 children each week. Soon we’ll be doing another 25 from another local school in the area,” Ms. Weber said.. “So that will be 177 children from four elementary schools as of right now, but the number is growing fast in Dorchester County.”
Volunteers pack and send home about 12 items each week per child - three breakfasts, two lunches, four snacks, two fruits and a special treat such as stickers or a small toy. “It’s more than 6,000 items a month,” Ms. Weber said.
Even with a modest budget of $5 per child per week, “Once we hit 177 kids, it’ll be about $2,700 a month,” Ms. Weber said.
Healthful items sent
On a recent afternoon, volunteers were busy at Vienna Elementary School, sorting and packing items for the weekly Friday distribution under the leadership of Ms. Bishop.
“I started the program last April here,” she said, after reading about a similar group in Talbot County.
Much of the food comes from the Maryland Food Bank, a contact initiated by Ms. Bishop. A typical bag or backpack will contain three breakfasts, such as small boxes of cereal or pop tarts or a container of oats; individual-sized cans of ravioli or stew, or a box of macaroni and cheese for lunch or dinner; sometimes a can of tuna or chicken, with packs of mayonnaise; snacks like granola bars, popcorn or a fruit cup; a piece of fresh fruit; and a treat just for fun, such as stickers or a small toy.
“We try to send home things that are a healthy as we can,” Ms. Bishop said. “We don’t send home junk.”
The organization is part of a group active in schools around the country. “Meals ’til Monday is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides kid-friendly weekend meals for local elementary children whose primary source of food is the school cafeteria,” the group’s website says.
Meals ’til Monday in Dorchester County is accepting donations from individuals and businesses, for the program in general or from those who would like to adopt a child to feed. Donations for the local group may be made online at www.mscf.org/donate-online.
Grace United Methodist Church in Cambridge provides meals to children at Sandy Hill Elementary, South Dorchester and Warwick Elementary. On the church’s website, www.graceumcambridge.org, is a list of foods that can be bought and dropped off at the church kitchen for inclusion in weekly deliveries to the schools. The church is located at 501 Race St., phone 410-228-4353.
Old Trinity Episcopal Church is the home of the South Dorchester Good Neighbor Project, which assists children at South Dorchester School.
The church is located one mile west of Church Creek, at the intersection of Md. 16 and Old Trinity Church Road. For more information, visit www.oldtrinity.net or call 410-228-2940.
Faith Community United Methodist Church at Hurlock Elementary School Mary Dennard-Turner
Grace United Methodist Church at Warwick, Sandy Hill, Choptank elementary schools, 410-228-4353
South Dorchester Good Neighbors at South Dorchester PreK-8 school, 410-228-2940
Mid-Shore Meals ’til Monday at Vienna, Maple and Choptank elementary schools, Leslie Bishop, 703-371-5191