A Small Sack Lunch Makes a Mighty Difference
One sack lunch at a time, volunteers fight hunger in Fort Smith
Six days a week, 52 weeks of the year, a half-door swings open in a brick building in downtown Fort Smith and from it come brown paper bags filled with a basic – but nourishing – sack lunch. They are given to anyone who is waiting in line to receive them.
It is perhaps the simplest “giving” mission in town. If you are hungry, you are given food.
It is not required that you give a name or fill out a form, although many names of both the givers and receivers are known to each other. No one is asked to verify their income or their address, or lack of either.
No qualifying questions are asked, at all. Are you hungry? Here is food, served with a kind word. That is the entirety of the St. John’s Sack Lunch Program. It seems a very simple mission, but like the most basic scripture or philosophical question, it can be found to hold more complex meaning.
Mission Control, or the ways and means committee
The St. John’s Sack Lunch Program began more than 25 years ago when Mary Wise, a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church, began bringing food to people she noticed near the bus station and church parking lot at the intersection of North B and 6th streets. She saw people who appeared to be hungry. She and her husband, Carl, began to bring Vienna sausage and crackers, daily, to serve to anyone who might be in need of food. The church soon asked to share in the couple’s work and, over time, shared the scope of food needs with other churches. Today, the program has more than 300 volunteers and about 17 churches and other organizations sharing the work of giving away sack lunches.
St. John’s gave the use of space in the former Secrest Printing building, owned by the church, for the sack lunch program’s home. It’s a string of small rooms opening onto a hallway. One contains several refrigerators and freezers, one has shelves for boxed and canned foods and one has a stainless steel work surface and sink. There is no desk, no office; there is hardly a chair to sit on. A small wooden counter shelf is there to be perched onto the edge of the open Dutch door, from which the sack lunches are served.
Currently, the coordinators of volunteers and food supplies are a trio of women who accomplish most of their work via email and phone calls from their homes or offices. Jean Kolljeski, Linda McDonough and Judi Stillwell work together as co-leaders.
Kolljeski has one heck of an address book. Working from a spreadsheet, she fills holes in the schedule by emailing volunteers. “Server Needed: Monday, 11:20 a.m. to noon. Sacker/Trainer Needed: Wednesday, 1:30-2:30 p.m. A new group of volunteers needs someone to show them the ropes/train them how to make meat lunches and also bag up cookies,” one typical email last month read. “Friday, 9:30-10:30 a.m. Help Hop Hopcraft make lunches.”
Fortunately, she’s not starting with a blank page. There are long-time volunteers who reliably work on certain days. For many years, Tom and Dorothy Caldarera of Taliano’s Italian Restaurant have prepared, transported and helped to serve homemade soup two days a week. A second family has begun to bring and serve special meals on the first Friday of every month, such as spaghetti with meat sauce, bread and salad or barbecue sandwiches, beans and dessert.
A women’s group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a weekly commitment of making and sacking lunches for the next day. A team of women from several black churches and women’s service clubs is responsible for making and service Monday breakfasts.
“They are so dependable – it makes my job so much easier,”?Kolljeski said of the many “regulars.”
It is and isn’t about the numbers
All three co-leaders have math homework. McDonough, Kolljeski and Stillwell cooperate to budget for food purchases and account for in-kind donations, such as Mrs. Baird’s Bread and Little Debbie desserts that have been provided by their makers this year.
McDonough also seeks funds by writing grant applications, many of which require data and quantification. In 2011, the program served 50,984 lunches. After noticing an increased and rising number of people receiving meals, she did an informal, verbal survey to gain insight and to attempt to project for upcoming needs.
“In June, 41 percent of our sack lunch customers said they were unemployed,” McDonough said. The survey also found 17 percent were disabled, 12 percent were working, 5 percent were retired, 18 percent were children and 7 percent reported themselves as without homes.
By the end of September this year, the sack lunch program had already served more than 45,000 meals, making it certain that this year’s number of lunches served will exceed last year’s.
The sack lunch program leaders would like to offer more milk (served once a week) for the growing number of children in line. Fresh vegetables cannot be managed, but the program always looks for ways to increase the nutritional value of the meals.
The cost of an average lunch is about $1.08, Stillwell has calculated. But by subtracting in-kind donations, which include Ziploc bags, bread, more than 75 percent of desserts and lower-cost purchases from the River Valley Food Bank, the cash cost is 63 cents per lunch.
The program’s total cost per year is about $63,000, which has been met through cash donations from involved churches, businesses, service clubs, families and individuals.
The numbers also don’t matter. The sack lunch program’s door has never failed to open because there was no food. Even with increased need, its volunteers have always found a way to hand out the humble brown bags of bologna, tuna, peanut butter and jelly, pimento cheese and cheese sandwiches with a piece of fruit, dessert and juice, milk or water. It’s a very lean operation, but there has always been just enough sandwiches and just enough volunteers – and always a need for more.
The rules and when not to follow them
With the simplest goal – to give food to anyone at the window – comes complexity, Kolljeski, McDonough and others who put the brown paper bags into waiting hands will tell you. There may be a hundred folks in line and each person is an individual. A volunteer may be asked for a second lunch by a lady who wants to take it home to her child. A short set of hand-written rules hanging on the wall inside says, “One person, one lunch.” A man may request two pieces of fruit but not two lunches. The rules say, “One person, one lunch.” Someone may ask, politely, for juice instead of milk on milk day.
Kolljeski may not be there on the first day a new volunteer works. Others may only prepare lunches but have no experience at the window. No one may be sure what to do about an unexpected request. No one is the authority.
But the last rule on the wall is, “Do what your heart tells you.”
“We just have to leave that up to every individual,” Kolljeski said. She and her co-leaders have never come up with a one-size-fits-all policy.
“If our policies were strict, maybe there would be people who need food who didn’t get it,” McDonough agreed. Perhaps what’s instructive for every individual volunteer is making that decision, she mused. “It’s the experience of doing it that is the journey.”
Keep the shelves stocked and carry on
When Kolljeski has administrative concerns, she turns to the program’s interdenominational board, with members from eight of the involved churches. When she has a spiritual question, she talks with the Rev. Michael Lager, rector of St. John’s.
“Talking with him is a big comfort to me,” Kolljeski said. When she questions giving out extra food or having such a flexible policy, Father Mike has good counsel, she said. “He tells me to work on filling up those shelves with food – then we’ll have enough not to worry about it.”
Lager has compassion for volunteers who struggle with uncertainty.
“I can offer that whatever we do to a fellow human being, we do to Christ,” he said. “To keep a tender heart in this job may sometimes be hard.”
Seeing with innocent eyes
Some volunteers bring their children to learn about service. Kolljeski received an email recently from a mom who wrote that her son became fascinated with a man who carried a bedroll and pack. She wrote:
“Are you camping?" Titus asks, super excited. The man says, "Why, yes I am! Do you like to camp?" He and Titus started up a marvelous conversation. His name is Jody. When I stopped looking at the outside and started listening to the words this man was saying I realized that he was a good, good man. Fast forward to the end of our serving time, we pack up to leave and as we were walking toward the car Titus and Ellie both RAN to this man named Jody, jumped into his arms and gave him a huge hug. Oh to have a heart for God's children the way these two do ... I think that I am learning more about service and compassion than my kids are.”