Brown Bag Meals Address Child Hunger
by Susan Brown
A middle school girl clutches brown bags of sandwiches and fruit as she gathers her young siblings and heads for home. She is bringing supper to her family – no small matter for many who struggle with food insecurity in Gardere, one of many communities in which holidays can mean hungry days.
Local mothers have spearheaded efforts to meet the basic need for food when it is most acute – those weeks and weekends when school breakfasts and lunches are not available. Several grassroots projects are connecting those who have means to spare with families that are hard-pressed to make ends meet. Although the brown bags were originally intended for lunches, they discovered the greater need was for take-home meals so children can have something for dinner.
With a keep-it-simple strategy, individuals have stepped into the gap to provide brown bag meals, some through the Gardere Initiative and others through Gardere Community Christian School. “God put it on a friend’s heart to find something where mothers can begin to teach their children to serve in a really tangible way,” said coordinator Robin Gaspard, a member of The Chapel on the Campus and coordinator of the Brown Bag Offering. “The first summer we served 10,000 lunches.” That was five years ago.
Planning is now underway for summer 2018 brown bag meals, served through the Gardere Initiative. There is also a need for take home dinners during the two-week Christmas break. That’s 200 bags per day. Each bag contains a meat and cheese sandwich with no condiments, a salty item such as chips or Goldfish, a fresh fruit, a sweet item and a small water bottle or juice box. Gaspard tries to get people to take a day, a week or several weeks and coordinate it with their friends. Networking is key.
“The first summer was really just moms. We sent the word out to everybody we could think of.” Then, a student working on his Eagle Scout project discovered the venture and coordinated a full week. Gaspard’s mother-in-law convinced her co-workers to provide meals for a week. Friends partnered with neighbors to stuff brown bags with food. BASF in Geismar joined the project, contributing meals for two summers as part of their community outreach.
“Last summer, I was beginning to sweat because people were not volunteering,” said Gaspard. Simple Shepherds, another group of moms led by Tammy Moran, stepped up to fill six weeks’ worth of brown bags. An Ascension Parish resident, Leila Banner, rallied people in Prairieville who had no real contact with Gardere but knew there was a need.
“It refreshed me to see God show up and literally orchestrate the summer,” said Gaspard. “That was an absolute blessing.”
“Simple Shepherds’ motto is ‘By his love’ – working with anyone in need,” said Caroline Lemann. “’By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:35). All the gifts we have are on loan from God, not just for ourselves but to bless others and to be thankful.” The group includes families from different churches and schools including St. Aloysius, University Laboratory School and Our Lady of Mercy.
“We wanted to expose our kids to service – one thing per month,” Lemann said. “We hope and pray that this will instill those values of service. The kids love it when they can interact. They ask, ‘When is our next project?’”
“We’re not just celebrating the blessings we have – which we do – but we’re also grateful for the opportunity to give,” said Marie Johnson of St. Jude Catholic Church Family Life Ministry. She refers to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…”
“You have to start your kids young, teaching them that it’s the right thing to do, to help others,” Johnson said. Through the Gardere Initiative, St. Jude families typically provide 1-2 weeks of brown bag meals and also prepare lunches on a Sunday. “It means putting my worldly things aside and not worrying about them. If I feel we’re not getting enough responses, I just pray and God provides,” Johnson said.
“As we distribute the bags, it gives us good dialogue. I see a change in my children. In their prayer life, they are very specific. They are more aware of what’s going on around them. They are more accepting of people’s differences and not afraid of speaking about God to people.”
Holidays are not the only time that kids face hunger issues. It’s also a challenge for many families to provide adequate meals on weekends. River Community Church in Prairieville stepped in to pack take-home meals for each student at Gardere Community Christian School.
“The principal said some of the children have nothing to eat on the weekends – nothing to eat. From that day forward, it’s been a true commitment,” said church finance manager Lori Demand.”
“God put it on the heart of a church member, Beth Williams, to do a food pantry. It’s now open every Tuesday noon to 2 p.m. When the youth went to the Gardere School for a service opportunity,
they talked about how the food pantry could help the school,” Demand said. “At first, the vision was ‘how can we help the neediest families?’ But the school said they all have a need; it’s just at a different level. We do family bags now.”
River Community broke ground for a fruit orchard in March to help fill the bags over the long term and add to the food pantry. “We’re making such a small dent in such a big need, but it’s important because we need to understand that it’s not us making the dent, it’s God. And eventually God will take care of the big picture,” Demand said. “It’s not up to us to do it all.”
“I always go back to how blessed I am and that God blesses us to share,” Demand said. “We feel abundantly blessed and He doesn’t just give us that to wallow in our own goodness, but to see a need and act on it.”
“There are kids who need food. There’s nothing romantic about it,” Gaspard said. “People want to help. But when you don’t know where to go, who to ask or what to do, it’s too overwhelming. I’m a spoke in that whole wheel, one little piece that helps minister to those kids, to reach out to them.”
“We’re not just celebrating the blessings we have – which we do – but we’re also grateful for the opportunity to give.” – Marie Johnson of St. Jude Catholic Church Family Life Ministry.
One in four children regularly faces periods of hunger in Louisiana, a state with the second highest food insecurity rate in the nation, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards. In September, he and First Lady Donna Edwards announced the No Kid Hungry Louisiana and School Breakfast Challenge effort. They are hoping to involve many different individuals and groups in creative solutions to child hunger.
To learn more or volunteer, contact Robin Gaspard, Brown Bag Offering, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Lori Demand at email@example.com.