Published: Thursday, December 16, 2010, 5:30 AM
For many Glen Iris Elementary students, the bags of snacks handed out Wednesday by volunteers from Canterbury United Methodist Church are just a little holiday treat.
But for some, the goodie bags will fill a desperate need for healthy food during the two weeks that school is closed, a stretch when they won't get two square meals provided free or cheaply at school. That gap inspired a group of volunteers from the Mountain Brook church to fill and hand out more than 1,300 of the small brown paper tote bags.
"It really had not dawned on us that these kids were facing this," said Susan Bellows, a church member from Vestavia Hills who organized the snack giveaway. "I guess we were thinking that somebody took up the slack somewhere, but that's not so, so if we can help a little bit, that's great."
The project started early this summer after Bellows read an article about kids who receive free and reduced lunches in the public schools going hungry during summer break. She and three friends from Bible study started packing up about 20 bags a week that were doled out to individual kids through Canterbury and East Lake United Methodist.
At Thanksgiving, the group assembled 200 bags to get kids through the four-day weekend. For Christmas, they got more ambitious and aimed for 1,000 bags; they exceeded their goal and hit 1,350.
The bags will help alleviate pressure on some of Birmingham's poor families, who are already struggling with the cost of heating bills and the scarcity of hourly work during the holidays, said George Thompson, faith and community coordinator for Greater Birmingham Ministries.
"This time of year as children are out of schools, the additional burden of feeding families at home during the holidays is additional stress to already tight budgets," Thompson said.
Stuck in that bind, many low-income parents turn to the cheapest, most convenient food possible, which is often unhealthy, he said.
So the bags are filled with nourishing options such as peanut butter crackers, applesauce, Goldfish, single-sized boxes of cereal, raisins and granola bars. (Bellows said they'd like to include fresh fruit but can't because the bags are prepared ahead of time.) Each bag contains two of everything so kids can share with siblings or stretch out their stash over the break. There are a few treats, too, including pudding, fruit snacks, cookies and candy canes.
"We try throughout the year to talk to the kids about healthy nutrition and what they eat," said Glen Iris Principal Michael Wilson. "This gives them an opportunity to actually see and have the healthy snacks in their hands for the two weeks that they're off."
About 200 of the bags went to Princeton Elementary earlier in the week, and on Wednesday the church delivered about 900 to Glen Iris; the remainder will be distributed to smaller after-school and church programs.
For more than 30 minutes, volunteers hauled in boxes and carts of the bags, which stretched across the stage of the school's gymnasium. Then, one class at a time, the students filed in to pick them up. The youngest children got their bags on Wednesday and older classes were expected to receive them today, the day before winter break begins.
"It's heavy!" more than one kindergartner squealed as the students peeked into the bags and gave hugs to the volunteers who delivered them. "Mmmmm, thank you!"
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