MADISON, Wis. — Each Friday morning, people at Westminster Presbyterian Church take turns filling 50 green bags with food and juice boxes and bring them down the street to Thoreau Elementary School.
The bags contain a breakfast, lunch and snack item for each of Saturday and Sunday and are delivered to student lockers, where students can bring them home to help their families eat over the weekend. The Weekend Food Bag program is new this year at Thoreau and was a community-led effort, school social worker Laura Glaub told The Capital Times.
"As a social worker you always feel like you're the one that has to solve the problems," she said. "It was amazing to step back and realize the community took on this problem and created a solution. I think (they had) more of an impact than they even realize."
The project was more than a year in the making, said American Family Insurance agent Brad Bodden, whose storefront is just down the street on Nakoma Road. He and representatives from Glenwood Moravian Church, Midvale Baptist Church, Temple Beth-El, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Group Health Cooperative and the Nakoma League joined together to make it happen.
Each group is taking one month of this school year to pack and deliver the bags each Friday. Nearly half of the school's students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"In this world we live in, where people from different backgrounds don't seem to always mesh very well, it's pretty cool to see them all come together," said Bodden, whose agency took the December shift.
The program is a local project of The Food For Thought Initiative, which also runs some food pantries in Madison schools and the weekend Thea's Table food program. Food is acquired through the River Food Pantry, which allows dollars to stretch far, Bodden said.
"A family that came here on refugee status, they wanted the bags for a couple months. Now they feel comfortable, they're settled in their jobs so they don't need it anymore," she offered as an example. "Or (another) family, a parent just lost their job so they're wondering if they can have bags for a couple of weeks."
Bodden was initially "blown away" at how large the need at the school was when he partnered with the school through the Foundation for Madison's Public Schools Adopt-a-School program in 2016. Four years later, he's glad to be a part of a group of people trying to meet those needs.
"It is literally one of the most inspirational things I've ever worked on," Bodden said. "It's a great example of community."
Glaub said it's made a noticeable difference for students on Monday mornings, and noted a family tracking what they'd be spending to get snacks otherwise has saved $225 this school year.
"Mondays are really hard for students because food is lower on the weekends when you have food scarcity at home," she said. "Providing this snack bag has prepared students to have a need met already. They don't have to wait until Monday morning to have that need met."
Bodden said he was full of "anticipation" the first Friday in December when the American Family group began its month of packing the bags. It had been since June 2018 when the discussions began, and as the group worked to raise over $30,000 to help fund the program he "wondered if it would ever get here."
"I woke up that morning like I was 10 again on Christmas day," Bodden said.
The school and volunteers hope to expand the bags to 75 next year and 100 the year after, Bodden said, to meet the ongoing demand -- Glaub said it's "super easy" finding 50 families interested -- but they're proud of the difference they're making already.
"Only doing 50 is kind of painful because we know that the needs are significantly greater," Bodden said. "But there's still some great sense of accomplishment in that it's 50 more than we were doing last year."
The food bag model is taken from Schenk Elementary School, where the community provides 130 bags to students each Friday, according to a concept paper Bodden created in June.
Glaub said the program looks slightly different depending on the community's needs. At Thoreau, for example, Glaub has extended the invitation to take part in the bag program to all families, not just those who are on the free and reduced lunch list, as sometimes challenges come unexpectedly, making it important for families to know what resources exist.