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By Carmen Ensinger
Every Thursday, around 11:30 a.m., a steady stream of high school students can be seen walking the half block from the high school to Faith Baptist Church to have a free lunch. It is a tradition that is now in its seventh year.
Like every giant redwood in the forest, the program started with a little seed that took root and grew into something much bigger over the years.
“It started with one mother whose kids wanted a place to go other than Dairy Queen or Bucks to eat lunch,” Robin King said. “They wanted some real food so she and two or three other people got together and started fixing lunch for the church kids and the next year it grew out more and they started bringing their friends. Finally, we opened it up to anyone in the high school who wanted to come and it became what it is today.”
Last year, because of COVID, the program was put on hold, but the students didn’t forget they had an alternative to the school lunch on Thursday. In fact, this year, the school is welcoming them helping with lunch.
“In the past, with previous administrations, I don’t think they have appreciated us doing the free lunches because they also have the free lunch program and it takes away from their numbers,” King said. “But this year, the school has been very gracious in telling the kids what our menu is on Thursday mornings and letting them come with their blessing because they don’t always have the room in their cafeteria due to social distancing. So, actually, we are helping the school this year.”
This was the third week that the church had served lunch. The first week, they had 27 students come over. The second week, they had 37. This week, they had 51 – many more than they had anticipated.
“We always try to fix a little extra just in case,” Jan Prough said. “There are usually three or four of us helping out and we try to fix enough for us to have a meal when all of the kids are done, but sometimes, like today, we don’t get to eat.”
Prough was thrilled with the number of students who showed up, but at the same time a little taken back since there was barely enough to feed them all.
“I think the increase we saw this week was due to the school announcing this morning what we were going to be serving for lunch,” Prough said. “It is great to see so many kids coming over this year, because two years ago, our average attendance was down to about 25 a week.”
Funding from the program comes strictly from donations from church members and others in the community.
“This program is not even written into our church budget,” King said. “Most of the money comes from our own church members and from parents who make donations. One year we did get a grant from an organization and this year we have applied for a grant from the Stanley Frech Foundation.”
Depending on how many students eat lunch and what is being served, King said it costs around $75 a week to run the program.
“We are very budget minded and we figured out that it costs between $2.50 and $3 per student for each student, depending on the meat we are serving that week and what kind of dessert we serve,” King said. “Of course, the more we serve, the more it is going to cost.”
The closing of Kroger has brought new challenges to the program.
“We try to shop as cheaply as possible,” King said. “We go to Sams, GFS in Springfield, Walmart and Hanson’s Meat Market in Jerseyville for our food. We try to do meals that will stretch a long way, such as spaghetti, sloppy joes, etcetera. Because of the trouble of getting food supplies, we will probably repeat the menu every five or six weeks this year.”
As they say, there is no such thing as a “free lunch”, though money doesn’t enter into the equation.
“All we ask is that the students listen to a short five-minute devotional by Pastor Alan while they are eating their lunch,” Prough said. “He waits till they have all gotten their food and sit down and are eating. They all are very respectful and pay attention while he is talking. They are a good bunch of kids.”