A case of shelf-stable milk can make a world of difference to hungry children.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2135 Baldwin Road, will hold a Party for the Pantries from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, to collect nonperishable items for weekend food bags that will benefit more than 150 Reynoldsburg City Schools students.
Last summer, the congregation threw a small party for the neighbors surrounding the church to celebrate the end of Baldwin Road construction.
This summer, the congregation wanted to hold another get-together. Instead of the end of orange barrels, this one will benefit the Helping Hands and HEART food pantries in Reynoldsburg, said Donna Lister, a church member and party organizer.
"Baldwin Road was torn up for a long time. It was a mess, and we thought we should throw a party because we're sure the people who live here were as worn out as we were," Lister said. "Thankfully, we don't have to go through that road construction again, so we said, 'Why not?' "
As a way of saying thank you, the church will offer free food and fun, including yard games and face painting for kids, she said.
"We'll also have a drive-thru lane and people to take the items out of your car so you don't even have to get out if you don't want to," Lister said. "Our family history center will also be open. A lot of people are curious about their ancestry now, so if someone has questions about their family history, they can use the center during the party."
About 58% of Reynoldsburg school district students are considered economically disadvantaged, meaning they are eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, according to the 2018-19 state report card.
Last school year, about 4,030 Reynoldsburg students received free or reduced-price lunches, district communications director Valerie Wunder said. The district has received more than 2,700 applications for free or reduced-price lunches thus far this school year, she said.
The weekend food-bag program targets "the most at-risk for food insecurity, using a variety of factors, including the free and reduced-price lunch data and family circumstances," Wunder said. "We get permission from the family prior to participation."
Entirely volunteer-driven, the program is a partnership between the schools and the HEART and Reynoldsburg Helping Hands food pantries.
Each Friday, participating students will receive a gallon-size plastic bag packed with "a box of macaroni and cheese or a heart-healthy soup, an individual serving of shelf-stable milk, a serving of cereal, an instant oatmeal packet, a peanut butter, a fruit cup or applesauce and a few chewy or granola-type bars, said the Rev. Sue Ellen Miller, a longtime HEART volunteer who has worked on the weekend food-bag program since it was started around 2015.
HEART receives much of its food through a partnership with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, which doesn't stock small-portion items such as shelf-stable milk boxes and single-serve applesauce or fruit cups, Miller said.
The goal is to keep the pantries' costs about $3 a bag -- or roughly $8,000 annually -- but costs can fluctuate, depending on donations and the retail price of food.
"We won't be able to purchase as much from Mid-Ohio because they are not geared toward these types of items," Miller said. "We're going to have to be buying most of our items or relying on donations. The shopping piece is going to be the challenge. And managing the budget, because to fill the bag from the grocery store at full price is going to be more than $3 a bag. Any group who would like to supply a month's worth or even a week's worth of the items would be very helpful."
The weekend food-bag program started with just two buildings -- Waggoner and Hannah Ashton middle schools -- but expanded this year to include nine Reynoldsburg schools: STEM Middle at Baldwin Road, Hannah Ashton Middle School and both Waggoner Road middle and junior high schools, as well as French Run, Herbert Mills STEAM, Rose Hill, Summit Road STEM and Taylor Road elementary schools, according to information from the district.
It typically takes more than a dozen volunteers to pack several weeks' worth of food bags at a time, Miller said.
"We're trying to use high school students and Scout groups to help with the packing. We're going to fill the bags as an assembly line," Miller said.
After being delivered by pantry volunteers, the bags are distributed to students on Fridays. The 1-gallon size is small enough to discreetly slip into backpacks.
"We hope that will help. Some kids were very proud to be able to help their families and others were embarrassed," Miller said. "Hunger is not visibly identifiable and sometimes people look at who receives food and think, 'Why are they getting food?' But we never know the back story of who just lost their job, who just lost their parent. Nobody wants to be receiving a handout, and they need to be treated with dignity and respect."