A community collaborative in New Hampshire anchored by a United Church of Christ congregation is delivering groceries to local families every week over the summer, ensuring 500 children have access to healthy food.
Got Lunch! Laconia, housed in the Congregational Church of Laconia and led by the Rev. Paula Gile, associate pastor, is a 10-week program that was created in 2011 to feed school-aged children in the community over the summer months.
"Two things really stand out for me about the Got Lunch! Laconia program," said the Rev. Gordon Rankin, New Hampshire Conference Minister. "The first is the depth of the need. The program provides food to the families of all the children who receive free or reduced lunch in the school system. In Laconia that is around 60 percent of the children in town. The second thing that stands out to me is the depth of the support for the response."
This year that response includes local businesses, other religious institutions, an area grocery store chain and a partnership with the region's agricultural cooperative. Got Lunch! Laconia also involves more than 200 volunteers for 2019, a number that has grown steadily in the nine years since Gile and the community launched the ministry.
"I got here in December , my first call out of seminary. The first week I was here I was asked if I had experience with a summer lunch program," Gile said, noting that she had worked on one previously in Vermont on a very small level. "People loved the idea of this delivery system. The first year we had 300 kids and 70 volunteers, 80 percent of whom were church members. This year we are feeding 500 kids with 240 volunteers, 20 percent who belong to Congregational Church of Laconia."
The Got Lunch! Laconia procurement team picks up food for the program at the food bank in Manchester, N.H. They start stockpiling supplies beginning in January, making the hour drive every other week until the beginning of June, when they go every week through mid-August.
Each Sunday and Monday from June through August, Got Lunch! Laconia volunteers report to the church a few hours at a time. After worship on Sunday, a group sets up long rows of tables downstairs in the church hall. Those work stations fall under the supervision of Mary Sorrell.
"I retired from my accounting job and read about this in the paper," said Sorrell, a volunteer from the community who has been with the program for about seven years. "I wasn't really looking for something to do, but my neighbor was a volunteer. I came with her, and the rest is history."
Sorrell started bagging groceries for delivery. She's now the Sunday set-up coordinator–handling the paperwork that involves the count of bags that need to be packed and delivered to Laconia families on each of a dozen different routes every week. One set of paperwork notes how many people are on each route. Another describes the products to be packed, so when the volunteers come in Monday morning everything is ready to go.
The next day, bright and early, the bulk of the work begins. Farmers drop off fresh vegetables purchased by the program, which are bagged up at 8 a.m. Got Lunch! Laconia also provides dairy vouchers redeemable at Vista Foods so families have access to milk, eggs, cheese or yogurt. By 8:30 a.m., between 60 and 120 volunteers go to work to bag up the rest of non-perishable items, assembling a week's worth of food for each child.
"Grandparents love to bring their grandkids here," Gile said on Monday, Aug. 12. "I bet we had 110 people packing today. At least 30 of them were kids."
Jacob Marshall, 17, has been volunteering since he was 9, first coming with his grandfather and his sister, Chelsea. Even though he no longer attends Laconia Congregational, he said he's always here, filling in wherever he's needed – from bagging groceries, to running them out to drivers, to parking cars.
"I really enjoy it a lot. I love to do community service," Marshall said. "I have also encouraged my cousins [who are] 10 and 14 to join us, along with some people from my high school in Concord, N.H. We do this every year."
Diane Tinkham, a member of the UCC church, has been involved eight of the Got Lunch! Laconia program's nine years. She now oversees the allergy bags operation with a team of three.
"As someone who has food allergies, we figured out how to do it efficiently and safely for the families," Tinkham said noting they can accommodate the four most common allergies —peanut butter, tree nuts, gluten and tuna. "We do sun butter, chicken instead of tuna. Special pasta for gluten free families, gluten free bread. We are precise about getting the right modifications."
Being careful to get it right includes packing the products in bright red bags, each prominently labeled with the names of the families.
All the grocery bags are color-coded. In addition to the red bags labeled for kids with food allergies, there are blue bags for one-child families, and green bags packed for two children. So, a family with five kids, for example, is provided with one blue and two green bags every week.
"It's organized chaos here on Mondays," said the Rev. Neil Wilson, senior pastor. "But everyone knows exactly what they are doing. We've got six rows of tables, several different stations where the food is organized and bagged for delivery. What's neat about it is different groups or businesses from the community will come in and man a station to be part of the effort. It's amazing to watch."
In just about an hour, hundreds of colorful bags are taken out to the delivery drivers who usually get back to the church between 11 a.m. and noon.
"The drivers are our ambassadors to the families," Gile said. "Some drivers develop nice relationships with the kids and ask to be drivers for the same route so they can see 'their kids.' Members of the Advisory Board who manage the families getting their deliveries also interact with the families."
The UCC church is the program's fiscal sponsor. The community collaborative is run by an advisory board of six members, five from the church and one from the community. Most of them have been with the program since its inception. Got Lunch! Laconia is not a non-profit, so it allows the board to apply for grants. "Our first year we applied for the 'UCC Make a Difference Grant,'" Gile said, "which really helped us get started in those early years."
Gile said it costs $130 to feed one child for the 10 weeks of summer. The money is raised through those grants, fundraising events, raffles and donations. Got Lunch! Laconia, she said, also gets tremendous support from the schools.
And the work doesn't end after the last week of the program, Aug. 26. In September the advisory board conducts surveys—one for volunteers and one for the families. In October, they close the books after paying all the summer bills. They write grants in November then break until January, when the process begins again.
"The commitment of the people who are on our board, they are so organized and open to suggestions," Tinkham said. "We have hundreds of volunteers because they make everyone feel needed. It's amazing to be a part of. It takes place in our church but is truly a community event. It's really a great way for fellowship."
"It's like family," Sorrell said. "These people that I didn't know – I really didn't know anybody when I started here. Now we're like best friends. We banter back and forth, but everybody just jumps in and gets it done. I miss them over the winter."
Got Lunch! Laconia has helped 18 other programs like it get started by sharing how they do what they do.
"This, for me, is what love of neighbor looks like," Rankin said. "It is when we say, 'I see you, I see your need and I see that we can make a difference.' The people of the Congregational Church and the wider town of Laconia are saying that loud and clear."