Many volunteer for Milford-based Food 2 Kids
For volunteer Michele Steinlauf, the reward comes when teachers say students are better prepared in the classroom at the start of the school week.
"We do hear that kids are ready to pay attention on Monday morning, whereas before they weren't," said Steinlauf, a Milford resident.
Steinlauf worked with the Rev. Ashley Grant of Milford United Church of Christ (UCC) to launch the Food 2 Kids program, which provides weekend food supplies to local students in need.
The program began by serving 26 students at two schools in early 2016, and now assists about 165 students at 13 Milford public schools — from elementary age to high schoolers.
Grant came up with the idea because her mother runs a similar program in her native Georgia. "I come from a family of teachers, and I've always heard about kids coming hungry to school," she said.
She first approached the school that her children attend, asking the principal if there was a need. A UCC member who is a Milford teacher asked if her school could be included as well.
A pilot program soon was started at the two schools, with most supplies coming from the Connecticut Food Bank, which partners with local organizations on weekend food programs. Milford organizers also purchase food at local warehouses and grocery stores and receive food drive donations.
On Friday, participating children receive a plastic grocery bag containing food for the weekend. There's enough for six meals, with items such as microwaveable pasta dishes and mac and cheese, peanut butter, jelly, applesauce, snacks, and boxed juices and milk.
"It's kid-friendly food — things that a 5-year-old could easily prepare for themselves," Grant said.
Items are sorted into bags on Thursdays by volunteers at the Milford Pastoral Counseling Center, near the UCC, then delivered to the schools by volunteers in their own vehicles. School social workers handle distribution to students. The food bags fit discreetly inside a child's backpack.
Program organizers work with the school system's central office on coordination, and participating students remain anonymous.
Food 2 KIds will be extended into the summer for the first time this year, with two distribution sites established in different parts of the city.
'Has been eye-opening'
Steinlauf said more youngsters can use help than most residents realize. "Yes, it's Milford but there's a still a need," she said.
Family members lose jobs, cars break down, medical issues arise, addiction becomes a problem. Some people were skeptical of the need in Milford at first — and there even was some "pushback," Steinlauf said — but that has changed over time.
"This," Grant said, "has been eye-opening to many, including in the business community."
The UCC generates money for the program through grants, church fund-raising activities, and donations from local businesses, school PTAs, civic organizations and individuals.
Mathewson School recently donated $1,240 to Food 2 Kids through a dime fundraiser. "That will buy 1,000 pounds of food," Grant said. Food secured from the Connecticut Food Bank generally costs $1.29 a pound in bulk.
Steinlauf is one of those who often speaks to Milford groups about supporting the program. "It takes a lot of stress off the children," she tells people.
Grant said Steinlauf, chair of the church's outreach committee, was the first person she approached at UCC about starting the program. "She's essential and very hands-on," Grant said. "She helps with grants, she does presentations."
More than 300 people — including young people — have volunteered with Food 2 Kids during the current school year. Some have given more than 200 hours while others volunteer once through an organization or business. Many church members are regular volunteers.
"It empowers them," Grant said. "There are so many problems in the world, and this is one small thing you can do to make a difference in your community."
Tracy Hoppock of Milford, a UCC member, has volunteered to prepare food bags on Thursday mornings since the spring as a way to give back to the community. "I didn't realize how much need there was in Milford," she said.
Retiree Chuck Huda of Milford wanted to get more involved in the community so he began volunteering. He helps unload delivered items and set up packing tables.
"It's good to give something back — and to see all the kids involved," Huda said. "It's hard to describe the feeling. It keeps you going, really."
Dave Steinlauf, Michele's husband, is a regular volunteer. "It's nice when you get feedback from the community on how this is helping the schools," he said.