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Julie Stewart sits casually curled up on the mauve, flowered couch in the library of the First United Methodist Church, her slight frame belying the substantial impact she has in the lives of children in this community. We are meeting to discuss Love All My Brothers and Sisters, or LAMBS, the program she spear heads to get food into the hands of hungry children on weekends here in Ware County, Georgia.
Although the largest county by area in the state, Ware County’s population is just under 36,000 people, and 28.4% of of them live in poverty, compared to 13.5% nationally. Children are disproportionately affected. An estimated 42% of the county’s roughly 8,500 youth live in poverty. Ninety percent of the 6,261 students in the school system receive free lunch through the National School Lunch Program.
The county is about two-thirds white, 30% black, and 3% Hispanic.
For some students, the problem of getting adequate food extends beyond school hours. Stewart, a semi-retired teacher, realized this when she saw children request cafeteria food to take home. She saw one boy wait until the other children had returned their lunch trays so he could discretely lick his plate,
“It wasn’t dessert he was trying to get more of, it was mashed potatoes, real food,” Stewart said.
She knew these kids needed more to eat, but the schools in Ware County were already providing two meals a day. Something needed to be done for the days they weren’t in school.
According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap Project, food insecurity, defined as limited or uncertain access to adequate food, affects one in every five children in Ware County, about 5 percentage points above the national average.
Ware County, located just north of the Florida state line, is home to the Okefenokee Swamp. The county seat of Waycross, population 15,000, contains the largest rail yard in the Southeast. Locals know the county’s sand roads, lined with commercial timber and blueberry farms, by heart. Last names still matter here.
For children in rural areas like this, some of whom only have contact with people outside of their households when they are at school, the combination of poverty and isolation can be particularly detrimental. The chances of being overlooked may be increased for students who live far from population centers.
After visiting with a friend in North Carolina whose church had a weekend food program, Stewart went to her own church with an idea. Six years and a lot of growth later, 236 kids in 10 schools receive grocery bags of food to take home each weekend. The LAMBS program, a reference to Jesus’ commandment to Peter to “feed my sheep,” runs on donations and the efforts of more than 30 regular volunteers.
The program originally purchased food from local grocery stores but is now primarily supplied by Second Harvest of South Georgia, a large food bank that has been in operation for more than 30 years and serves more than 400 partner agencies in 30 counties. Volunteers stock the bags, which contain seven to 10 food items. Students receive the bags at school on Friday afternoon. Special bags are marked with a ribbon for children with food allergies. The program also fills stockings with toys and personal items for each child at Christmas.
Teachers identify children who might need the program and refer them to the school counselor, who contacts the family to confirm the need before passing on their information to LAMBS. Other families reach out to the school for assistance.
The program is easy for participants to navigate because it is privately funded and has less complicated administration. Private funding also means the safety net isn’t susceptible to federal or state budget cuts, said Lisa Crosby, counselor at Ruskin Elementary.
“LAMBS is a wonderful program that meets the needs of many students and families,” she said. “Students are fed breakfast and lunch at school each day, but the LAMBS program continues that food supply through the weekend. Children who receive bags approach me every Friday and ask if they are getting their bags today.”
Hunger affects student health and performance. Hungry children have trouble concentrating and learning. So improving nutrition helps the student, the classroom, and the whole community, Stewart said.
The program does not operate in the summer, when the logistics of delivery and information management become too big for volunteers to handle. Other local programs attempt to feed children in need during the summer, but these are not as accessible to students who don’t live in town.
So, at the end of the school year, LAMBS sends children home with as much food as their bag can carry and a list of resources, including information on where food is available during the summer break.
A homesteader, writer and community educator, Katy is a graduate of Indiana University. She is heavily involved in her community where she studies culture and works to promote ethical food choices. She and her husband live in Southeast Georgia where they are raising two children, four horses and dozens of chickens.