ELIDA — Most kids are excited for the weekend, but for a surprisingly large proportion of students, weekends mean going hungry.
“We are the richest nation in the world,” said Jenny Earls, founder of Meals ‘til Monday with her husband, Joe. “It’s not OK that kids are going hungry.”
The Earls felt God was preparing them to serve in some way, but weren’t sure how. The direction became clearer when Joe returned from a mission trip to Peru last spring.
“Once I got back, we began to actively pursue what we could do as a family to show the love of Jesus to others,” said Joe Earls. “What God did was challenge us to further His Kingdom right where we lived.”
The couple heard about the West Ohio Food Bank’s backpack program at Lima schools, which provided weekend meals for students. The couple offered to volunteer but the needs of the program were already covered.
So they started looking into needs at Elida Elementary School. The numbers were overwhelming.
“I had no idea that over 50 percent of the students qualify for reduced or free lunches,” Jenny Earls said. “I truly had no awareness of the huge need right in front of us.”
As the couple began to look at how they could meet that need, Jenny Earls explained that the process was a whirlwind, three-day experience.
“We met with the school, a lawyer, an accountant and the food bank from Wednesday to Friday,” she said. “When we were done, we had a business.”
Joe and Jenny Earls started at their lawyer’s office, and they were discouraged when they learned they couldn’t operate the charity out of their home because of liability issues. There were also questions of proper storage and distribution. On a whim, they decided to stop by the West Ohio Food Bank.
“God just kicked the doors wide open at that meeting,” Jenny Earls said. “The Food Bank was wonderful and really was able to answer all the questions that had been worrying us.”
The Earls felt that was a crossroads. The project was possible, but would they be brave enough to undertake it?
“The need had been laid out very clearly to us. We could either do something about it or ignore it,” she said. “I have never felt such a certainty about doing something.”
The Meals ‘til Monday program began this school year. Currently, the program provides weekend meals to about 80 kids at Elida Elementary School and 27 kindergarteners at Gomer.
School social workers Jessica Hays and Allison Jones deal primarily with the selection of which students need the meals.
“At Elida, students are referred to the MTM program by staff members that see a need,” Hays said. “If a student regularly complains of being hungry, is found hiding snacks to take home or if the teacher somehow knows that the family is in need, they contact me and I contact the family to see if they are interesting in participating in MTM.”
Hays said the children receive their meals discreetly. Gomer students’ backpacks are gathered, the meals put inside and returned while the kids are busy elsewhere. At Elida, meals are distributed in the gym when other students are released by the bell to be picked up by their parents.
The weekend meals cost approximately $3.50 per child per weekend or $140 for one child for the entire school year. Each child receives two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners. Food selections include easily prepared foods like individual servings of cereal, granola bars, soups, juice and pasta.
The meals are packed by volunteers at the West Ohio Food Bank on Monday afternoons. It takes about 45 minutes to pack up, but the volunteers often stay twice that long to help with other programs there. West Ohio Food Bank, located at 1380 E. Kibby St., serves 11 counties.
“I always like to encourage people to volunteer at the food bank,” Jenny Earls said. “They serve a lot of people and without them, we could not have done this.”
The couple is quick to point out that this program is not about them.
“God threw us into this thing, and it is so much bigger than we are,” Jenny Earls said. “We couldn’t do this without our volunteers, our donors or the food bank. Every obstacle we had, God opened a door.”
Her husband agreed.
“We want to challenge you in whatever He is calling you to do. I challenge you to engage Him, where you are at and in what He is doing, then get out of the way because no matter how big you think He is, one thing I know for sure, He is bigger,” Joe Earls said.
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