About half of the students enrolled at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. receive free or reduced-price lunches while school is in session.
But who feeds them when students are on their winter break?
For about 70 children each year, the answer is No Empty Lunchboxes, or NOEL, a mission program at First United Methodist Church.
Now in its fourth year, NOEL delivers sack lunches to at-risk children while they out of school. Distribution dates are Jan. 2 to 4.
About 20 volunteers gather the Sunday prior to distribution to make peanut butter-and-jelly and bologna-and-cheese sandwiches. Bagged lunches also include juice boxes, fruit, carrots, and chips or homemade cookies. A coloring or puzzle page is typically tucked into the bag as well.
Karen Brown, director of Hope Ministries at the church, said exact contents vary each year, based on donations.
No matter what’s inside, the children are excited to receive their lunches and will often be waiting by the front door when volunteers arrive, Brown said.
“It is such a good message about the kindness of strangers,” said Diane Doup of the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center. Doup identifies families in need, often through referrals from other social service agencies, and supplies the church with the information.
Doup said some of these children are staying with sitters who appreciate relief from having to prepare meals. For parents, the program eases the financial strain of having to buy extra meals.
“It really is a gift, not only for the children, but for the parents,” Doup said.
Since BCSC introduced a two-week fall break for the first time this year, the church also provided free bagged lunches during part of that time. Brown said the church will likely continue its efforts during spring break.
“We have a congregation that is willing to step up and support the program,” she said.
Doup said that while other groups help provide for at-risk children during summer breaks, the shorter mid-year school vacations were not covered until First United Methodist began the NOEL program.