People in DeSoto County are becoming ever-increasingly aware that, in the midst of affluence, there remains segments of the county where hunger is a real fact of life.
Recent statistics indicate that 20.8 percent of Mississippi youngsters do not have a consistent food supply.
Some DeSoto County youngsters who deal with hunger get relief in the schools during the week through free or reduced-price lunch programs. Statistics also point out that 53 percent of DeSoto County youngsters are eligible for those free or reduced-price lunches.
What happens to them for food on the weekends became a concern of some women at Southpoint Church in Southaven about two years ago. They set about, not only filling stomachs, but also putting their faith into action.
Started at Southaven Intermediate School, what was simply a backpack ministry has now become what is called Hunger2Hope. It has connected churches, concerned businesses and people, who donate food and then fill the food inside backpacks for the weekend with students in Southaven and Horn Lake who would likely go without until they come back to school Monday morning.
Each backpack receives five servings of protein or soup, four servings of vegetables, three servings of fruit, two servings of breakfast items, three snack items and two juice items. Each weekend, about $10 worth of food are put inside.
Similar programs are also being done in other parts of the county in varying forms.
Beth Gardner, an instructor at Southaven Intermediate and teacher’s assistant Ashtyn Lanham help coordinate the Hunger2Hope program at the school.
Hunger2Hope currently fills about 130 backpacks weekly, up significantly from the 25 that were aided when the program was first started in the 2015-16 school year.
Gardner said she expects the number will grow because she sees the needs among the students who walk the school hallways daily.
“As people realize what it is we are able to do and how we are doing it, I think the numbers will go higher because I know at this school there are a lot more students that need Hunge2Hope but they just haven’t been submitted to us, yet,” Gardner said.
Each Wednesday evening, the backpacks are filled and then on Friday are discreetly placed inside the classroom door of the children who have signed up for the program.
However, more than just food items are included. Gardner said many who sponsor a backpack insert an encouraging note, Bible verse or something she said lets the child know they’re being thought of and loved on.
“What I’m most passionate about is not just the food, but it is the relationship that sponsor has with the child,” Gardner said. “It’s very anonymous, but it’s special to that child because they realize that somebody loves them and somebody cares for them outside of their family.”
Lanham adds the connections being made are not of their doing.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this if it was just us,” Lanham said. “God’s really provided for this.”
The quick growth of the program has caused it to add students at Horn Lake Intermediate to it. Gardner said there has also been a growth in those wanting to help out.
“People that I don’t know are emailing me, asking if they come help, drop off food or how can they get an organization involved,” Gardner said. “People from Baptist-DeSoto want their units to do food drives or Olive Branch Motorsports is giving discounts on their parts for people to bring food in. Lots of very amazing and humbling examples from the community that I don’t even know how to respond to.”
Southpoint Church Pastor Craig Wendel said he has observed how those providing backpacks are seeing how faith in action ministers to both givers and receivers.
“The people who fill the backpacks are constantly talking about what a blessing it is to be able to give hope to the kids,” Wendel said. “Several of the adults have started writing letters and putting those letters in the backpacks or offering words of encouragement, like ‘I’m praying for you, have a great day in school,’ simple little words of encouragement that have paid off in a big way.”
Gardner said it’s hoped that a plan to continue the program for the summer months can be formalized, because it’s now geared for only the school year, but she believes something to fill that need will happen. She said the food and the connections being made due to Hunger2Hope are very important.
“God’s had His hand all over it and that’s when we started doing the relationships with the children,” Gardner said. “I know that feeding the children is important, but I feel like it’s the relationships and the time being put in to make sure these kids know that they are loved is where I feel the Lord is honoring this ministry.”
For more information, visit www.hunger2hope.com.
Bob Bakken is Staff Writer and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.