Local churches provide weekend nutrition for neighborhood children
By Brian Rust
Collaboration Project Story Team
Rev. Staci Marrese-Wheeler isn’t sure exactly when the idea for the school Weekend Nutrition Program started. All she knows is it neither began nor ends with her. Her particular involvement started about five years ago.
“A few years ago a colleague of mine at St. Luke’s Episcopal, the Rev. Dr. Paula Harris, and I had been talking about ways our churches could better serve our neighborhoods,” Marrese-Wheeler said. She is pastor of Lakeview Moravian Community Church on the east side of Madison, near St. Luke’s, as well as Glenwood Moravian on the west side.
Harris told her about a weekend nutrition program at Falk Elementary School on Madison’s west side, coordinated by St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church and The Vine. We were interested in how that might work for a few of our small eastside congregations,” the Moravian pastor said. “So we decided to talk to them.”
The need is glaring, and growing. According to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction figures, about 44% of Wisconsin students are eligible for free or reduced in-school meals. Several Madison faith communities are attempting to meet nutrition needs when the school week ends.
Marrese-Wheeler and Harris met with organizers from the Falk program, who provided them with a basic template and advice for their approach. The next step--finding a neighborhood school--was easy. Schenk Elementary is across the street from Lakeview Moravian. Marrese-Wheeler met with the school principal and social worker, and found them very open to the idea. They agreed to start with fifty students.
“As small churches, we have limited resources,” she added. “So we did two things to make sure the program was sustainable.” One was to seek allies from nearby neighborhood churches. St. Luke’s and Lake Edge United Church of Christ joined as the effort at Schenk began. St. Dennis Catholic Church and Lake Edge Lutheran Church got involved a bit later.
Marrese-Wheeler also pursued outside funding so the program would be financially sustainable. She received a $15,000 grant from the Madison Community Foundation, from a fund specifically for ministries of east side churches. Interestingly, the program that began the fund had its roots in an earlier collaboration among congregations. It was formed many years ago when twenty-one eastside churches pooled their money to launch the Ecumenical Housing Corporation to provide stable, affordable housing for seniors. Over time the need changed, the buildings were sold and the assets were repurposed to fund the community outreach grant program.
Organizers also wanted to make sure that the eastside version would work well for their local schools and congregations. To Marrese-Wheeler, congregational ownership was key. “Early on we decided that in order for us to do this well, it couldn’t be a pastor-run program,” she added. “We brought the idea to our congregations and people jumped on it.” Several volunteered to lead the effort.
The churches partnered with HyVee on Madison’s east side. The store provides bags and food at a reduced cost for two healthy breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and beverages for each student recipient. HyVee delivers the food to Lakeview Moravian on Wednesday. Helpers from several churches gather on Thursday afternoons to assemble the bags, which are delivered to the school on Friday mornings. The school social worker compiles a list of locker numbers, and the volunteers put the bags in student lockers while they are in class. The program is discreet. There is no recognition of the students or the helpers.
“Our program has really taken off,” said Marrese-Wheeler. “The need at Schenk immediately went from 50 to 80. This past spring it jumped to as many as 140 children at times. Some of them are homeless, so the demand fluctuates as they have housing transitions.”
The number of participating schools and churches has also grown. There is now an eastside coordinating group that has “tithed” from the grant to jump-start similar programs at Allis, Nuestro Mundo and Thoreau elementary schools.
“We started Weekend Nutrition as a way for our churches to do something tangible,” said Marrese-Wheeler. “Feeding children is a challenge for families having to meet very basic needs.
(For More Info: If your faith community or group would like to learn how to start a Weekend Nutrition Program at your neighborhood school, or support an existing one, please contact Debra Alldredge.)