Fighting back against child hunger in our community

Liberty Church’s Backpack Ministry and Feeding the Gulf Coast work together to help food insecure children

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FOLEY – There are children in Baldwin county schools who only eat one meal a day. Liberty Church in Foley is working to change that.

The local Feeding America partner, Feeding the Gulf Coast (formerly Bay Area Food Bank) is working constantly to provide meals and educate those in our community about the needs in the Central Gulf Coast Region which covers 24 counties along the Gulf Coast in three states: Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

“One in four children in our community struggle with hunger, that means that one child on every row of a school bus is food insecure,” said Eugenie Sellier, Alabama program manager of Feeding the Gulf Coast.

In recent studies by Feeding America, Alabama has ranked in the top five U.S. states with the highest amount of food insecure children.

Sellier said recent data shows Bay Minette had the highest percent of the population in poverty at 29.4 percent followed by Gulf Shores at 18.8 percent and Foley at 17.6 percent.

Poverty is just one determining factor of food insecurity, but with a population in Baldwin County greater than 200,000 and a food insecurity rate of about 13 percent, that means there are an estimated 26,000 people here struggling with food scarcity.

Hunger can be detrimental for children's physical, emotional, and mental health. Starting before birth, pregnant women who do not have access to adequate amounts of nourishing food are more likely to suffer birth complications and their babies are at a higher risk for low birth weights. Children who continue to grow in these conditions generally have poor health, stunted development, and learning difficulties.

"You know how we are when we get hungry. We get grumpy and sluggish and we have a hard time getting anything done. Imagine what it must be like for a child who can't fend for themselves," said Darleen Johnson, Leader of Liberty Church’s A1:8 Ministry: Backpack Team.

Children struggling with hunger are prone to require hospitalization and are more at risk for chronic health conditions, such as asthma and anemia. They may also suffer from more oral health problems than children who are food secure.

Behavioral issues and social difficulties are also side effects of hungry children. These problems include aggression, mood swings, bullying, hyperactivities, depression, fighting, and more. These children may refrain from engaging fully in social interactions and education. In short, the price of hunger can alter lives.

In school, teachers report that hungry kids cannot concentrate, lack energy and enthusiasm, show poor academic performance, and are more prone to cause discipline problems. One teacher recalled a story of one of her students who she thought did not care about learning or school in general. When questioned, the child began to cry and admitted he couldn't help it; his hunger was distracting him so much he couldn't concentrate even though he wanted to. Upon further investigation, the teacher found that the child only had one meal a day to eat - his free lunch at school.

"When I look into those kids’ eyes, I see a child in need. You wouldn't think in such a tourist-filled area that we would have problems with child hunger, but we do. Right here in our community. It's heartbreaking," Johnson said.

Johnson, a member of Liberty Church in Foley, is fighting against child hunger with the A1:8 Backpack Ministry. Based on the Bible Verse Acts 1:8 which says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” the ministry is in conjunction with Feeding the Gulf Coast, and is designed to provide children with healthy meals over the weekend when they are away from free breakfasts and lunches at school.

“So many people aren't aware of how many children go home from school on weekends to little to nothing to eat,” said Rachel Sawyer, store manager of The Royal Standard in Gulf Shores.

Teachers and school counselors identify students who could benefit from the Backpack Program and pass on the information to the food bank while keeping the students’ identities anonymous. The food bank and volunteers prepare bags of food that are delivered to the schools and teachers place the bags discreetly in the children's backpacks.

Each bag contains six meals and two snacks and contains a variety of nutritious but easy to prepare foods. This school year Liberty Church alone will sponsor over 200 children in the program. That is over 7,000 backpacks that will be distributed by summer vacation in 2018. These numbers are up from the 2016-2017 school year when Liberty Church sponsored 115 children and distributed approximately 4,100 backpacks. Liberty Church's program currently sponsors Foley Intermediate, Foley Middle, Magnolia School, Robertsdale Elementary, and Rosinton Elementary.

The Liberty Church Backpack Program began its partnership with the Bay Area Food Bank in 2012. Michaela Callow initiated the program after learning of the significant need local students faced with lack of nourishing food while away from school.

Since the program started, Liberty Church has distributed over 14,000 backpacks, not counting the ones currently being distributed for the 2017-2018 school year. Currently, Feeding the Gulf Coast has provided over 60,000 backpacks in its 24-county service area.

"We appreciate partners like Liberty Church who are helping us fight child hunger in Baldwin County," said Sellier. "They are a major partner in the fight to end child hunger."

It costs $135 to sponsor a child for a year, which is less than 40 cents a day. Liberty Church's Backpack Program has found creative ways to raise money for this cause and they also pack 300-800 bags of weekend food for the children each month.

"Liberty not only helps raise funds for the Backpack Program, but they also come out to the food bank once a month to help pack backpacks," Sellier said.

Liberty Church also holds a fundraiser in April to help support the program. This year, it raised $28,000. All profit made goes to the ministry and to charity.

Liberty Church doesn't stop with raising money and packing meals however, they also strive to bring awareness to the community about the need children face.

A new initiative, Adopt a Bike, Feed a Child, allows businesses to adopt a bicycle for one year for $135, also the price to sponsor a child for a year, any individual or business can adopt a bicycle for one year. The bikes are old, but are cleaned, painted, and decorated and stand in yards or businesses both as decorations, and as a way to share the mission with the community. Each bike comes with an adoption certificate and a yellow tag with the words ‘Bak Pak’.

"The staff at the Gulf Shores location put our own money together to adopt a bike for $135 which feeds a child for an entire year. The bike we received sits outside of our store to serve as a visual cue to people in our area and we've actually had a couple of other businesses do the same because they saw the bike at our store. The bike is old, but painted with baskets and flowers and represents a child that needs nurturing and love," Sawyer said. "We do think the program is making a difference in our community. I do not know the exact number but I do know that this program through Liberty Church has raised a significant amount of money to be able to feed the many children in our area who need it. We think it will continue to make a difference as long as we are all passionate about helping to make a difference."

Sawyer also said that The Royal Standard company, based out of Baton Rouge has allowed the Gulf Shores store to donate space in the storage units behind the store to keep the bikes the program is donated. This serves as the space to clean and paint the bikes and get ready for the annual fundraiser in April. But Sawyer and her employees continue to help the mission of the Backpack Program including a Shop for a Cause event in August.

"The Royal Standard in Gulf Shores also held a shopping event where 10 percent of our sales that day was donated to the program along with raffle ticket sales, of which we got local businesses to donate prizes for," Sawyer said.

Brenda Ray, owner of A Specialty Bakery in Gulf Shores and a huge supporter of helping those in need, decorated and donated cookies for that event.

Ray, who also has a bicycle in front of her store, said “I'm always willing to help! Kids are my heart. I'm hoping it [the Adopt a Bike initiative] will really take off and help the kids in the area.”

The bikes Liberty Church uses for this initiative are all donated. Big Fish Ministries, one of the donors, donated 25 bikes to the program. The Foley Police Department has also supported the program by donating abandoned bicycles to the cause. The paint used for the bikes has been covered by monetary donations and Abbott's Greenhouse donated all the flowers and plants at launch of the program.

“I think it is an excellent way to help the church and their ministry,” said Stephen Abbott, owner of Abbott's Greenhouse in Foley. “Something this positive must have a positive impact in our community. Plus, what better way to show Christ's love? I think it is a wonderful thing.”

Johnson plans to reach out to more businesses in Foley.

“Our vision is to see these bikes up and down Foley,” she said.

Johnson said currently the program is about to adopt out the 60th bike meaning with bike adoptions alone, Liberty Church is feeding 60 children.

“I've seen more myself than I did before. This area has a lot of heart especially when it comes to the little children. This is such a giving community,” Ray said.

Liberty Church also helps spread the word with Honor Cards. After donating money to Liberty Church, a request for an Honor Card can be made. These cards can be given to anyone and say, ‘a gift has been given in your honor to the A1:8 Backpack Ministry of Liberty Church.’

“For every $10 donated, you can request an Honor Card. You can send these cards in place of a typical card. It shows that you care in multiple ways. It is the gift that keeps giving,” Johnson said.

According to Kathy Pope, CEO of Feeding the Gulf Coast, it costs only $4 to feed a child for one weekend. Any kind of monetary donation to Liberty Church's Backpack program or Feeding the Gulf Coast is helpful, but there are other ways to help. Feeding the Gulf Coast and Liberty Church need volunteers to pack backpacks to be delivered to schools. There is no cost and anyone can volunteer, including children. Feeding the Gulf Coast is also looking for individuals to become advocates for the Backpack Program and spread the word about child hunger and ways to alleviate it.

“It devastates me to think of a child going hungry. When I realized that so many kids in Baldwin County were going home after school with little to no food, I knew I had to do help in some way. I was so grateful to learn of Liberty Church’s outreach initiative to end this horrible epidemic in our local community. By supporting their Backpack and Adopt A Bike programs, businesses like Wolf Bay and fellow concerned citizens are able to come together and truly make a difference in these children’s’ lives. I am proud to support their endeavors and pray that they are able to continue these outreach programs for our precious children for years to come,” said Char Haber, owner Wolf Bay Restaurant & Catering.

Wolf Bay Lodge currently has two bikes outside of the restaurant and are strong advocates for Liberty Church's mission to end not only child hunger, but all hunger in our community.

Johnson's drive to see the Backpack Ministry succeed as well as seeing adopted bikes around Baldwin County is fueled by her love of God.

“God has blessed me and I want to give back. We can't conquer the world, but we can make a difference one backpack at a time as a community,” Johnson said. “It's about love ... and hope.”