As a high school teacher, Adrienne Smith often hears stories she wishes weren’t true.
Like the stories of neglect, stories of children going without meals, of parents selling food stamps for drugs or trading them for cell phones.
Both she and her husband, Ian, members of Moultrie First United Methodist Church, teach at Colquitt County High School. It was through teaching that their eyes were opened to the hunger problem in the area.
“Becoming a teacher is what really showed me how many kids are hungry,” she said. “We send all of this food aid (overseas) and here I am working in a school system where 80 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch. It really hit me when students were honest with me and told me that they weren’t eating at home.”
Ian, who teaches physical education and coaches football, sees it, too. About half of his team sticks around to eat dinner every night after football practice.
The Smiths saw and talked to so many hungry kids, she said, that they could no longer ignore the problem.
“It got to the point where we just couldn’t deny it anymore, it was an everyday thing for both of us.”
So after years of talking about the problem, it was on their way home from a fundraiser in North Georgia that the Holy Spirit nudged them to get involved.
“On the way home we were talking and the theme that kept coming up was ‘somebody needs to do something,’” she said. “We needed to be that somebody.”
The Smiths knew that they were being called to help address the issue of hunger in Colquitt County, and discussed with Moultrie First UMC pastor Rev. Mark Addington the possibility of the church joining their efforts.
“We told him that, whether it was through the church or not, we were going to do something,” Smith said. “He thought it …would be a great ministry and opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Knowing that hunger is a problem the church could help address, Smith researched options and programs and found that the government, through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, provides nutritious, free meals to children when school is not in session.
The congregation jumped on board with the program, offering to be a host site. But they knew they needed to do more.
The USDA’s program provides breakfast and lunch for all children 18 years old and younger for six weeks – from June to mid-July. While those dates cover the majority of summer break, they don’t span the entire summer, and many children who rely on school meals would go without food those days.
The “gaps” in the program – the days between when school ends and the summer feeding program begins and the days between when the program ends and school begins – total 27 days.
“Knowing the situations and that some of these kids are only eating during the school year, we just felt like we had to do something in the gaps,” Smith said. “We decided that we had to feed these kids during those times.”
So this summer, Moultrie First United Methodist Church will open its doors each day to serve breakfast and lunch to hundreds of area children. They will be the only site in the county serving meals during the “gaps.”
Last summer, the USDA served 42,000 meals to Colquitt County children – nearly 800 each day.
While the USDA supplies the meals during the program dates, the church will raise money to fund the other 27 days.
“I don’t really believe that we will be feeding 800 children each day, but the possibility is there that we could be feeding a lot since we’ll be the only place in the county where food will be given for free during those gaps,” Rev. Addington said.
In addition to being a place where they will be fed nutritious meals, the congregation hopes the church will be for the children a refuge and a safe haven.
“We are really excited about this,” Smith said. “Not only do we get to feed them and meet a basic need, but we will also have the opportunity to share Jesus with them. Even if it’s through simple activities … it’s taking that time with them and letting them know that someone loves them, someone cares about them.”
To date, more than $5,000 has been donated and raised to help offset the food costs.
“I think it’s absolutely necessary for the Church to meet people’s needs as we offer them Christ,” Rev. Addington said. “We can go up to someone who’s hungry and say, ‘let me tell you about Jesus,' but they aren’t going to care because what they’re concerned about is the hunger in their stomach. But if we help meet that need, they’re going to be more willing to hear why it is we do what we do.”