PRINCETON – This month marks one year since Princeton’s Buddy Bags program first came to plan.
Throughout the year, the program has striven to conquer hunger in area children by providing two breakfasts and lunches on the weekend to those whose primary source of nutrition is through the free meal program at the schools.
The idea began with Mark Frank, a member of the Princeton Elementary School Board. He said while he was touring the schools, he became aware of students whose only nutrition came from the school lunches. The unsettling experience stuck with him, as his church — the First Christian Church of Princeton, was brainstorming ideas for an outreach program to help the community.
“I threw the idea out there, and everybody jumped on it and said, ‘That’s what we’re doing,’” he said. “So we started the program here at church.”
After much discussion, planning and organizing, the program kicked-off in May, providing breakfasts and lunches to 10 students within the PES District.
“We wanted to start with the youngest first because they were the most needy,” said Frank.
The program quickly expanded, and eventually students from Malden Grade School, Princeton High School, Princeton Christian Academy and St. Louis Catholic School were added to the packing list.
It didn’t take long before several civic organizations and churches from the Malden, Princeton and Tiskilwa area got involved by providing volunteers, food and monetary donations to assist the program.
A Facebook page and website were set-up to help further promote the program, and fundraisers were planned to raise money for food.
Today the program’s core group consists of about 30 volunteers, and the churches and organizations take turns packing the meals each month. Today, the program provides meals for 60 students.
“When it started off, I thought it would be a one-man show or two-person show, and it is 100 people. It’s 100 people, and it’s just amazing what’s come of it,” said Frank. “Everybody’s working together for a common goal, and what better thing could you do to feed those kids that are hungry?”
Volunteer Sandy Rose works in one of the schools where the Buddy Bags are provided.
“It’s rewarding to see it going back to the kids that I work with and see on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I see kids that are excited to get this food.”
Volunteer Karen Tunis thoroughly enjoys volunteering for the program and said packing the food gives her and her daughter a great activity to work locally to help the kids in community.
“It’s a really nice thing for a mother and daughter to do,” she said.
Out of the 110 days in the calendar school year, the program provides breakfasts and lunches for all but four days. A packing room and “mini-grocery-like store” are set-up at the First Christian Church. Frank said it took less than $200 of the starting donations to purchase shelving and carts that help store the bulk amounts of food in the church.
“It’s a small room, but we try to make as much of the space as possible to store,” he said.
The cost per bag is about $5. Each bag is packed with various items ranging from Pop-tarts to fruit granola bars and instant oatmeal to canned tuna, Spaghetti-Os and macaroni-and-cheese.
Frank explained all the collected food must be pre-packaged. A lot of the food has to be ready to eat once opened, for students who don’t have the ability to heat up or cook food.
Volunteer Linda Berry said the big thing people don’t realize is there is a hunger issue in the area.
“I think there are some people who just jump to conclusions that Mom and Dad just don’t want to feed their kids or they’re gone, but there’s underlining things,” she said.
Looking into the future, Frank said the program expects to see a growing number of students on the packing list.
“It’s going to grow. It’s going to keep getting larger ... Since we started, we’ve only had one week that’s gone down in numbers,” he said.
The group currently working to become a non-profit program in order to qualify for grants to fund the growing need.
The group is also gearing up to host their first craft vendor show from 8 to 3 p.m. March 2 at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church to continue their fundraising efforts for the program.
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