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Mascoutah Meals program rounds out weekend for some needy students

Mascoutah Meals program feeds hungry students on weekends

Mascoutah Meals program feeds hungry students on weekends
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Mascoutah Meals program feeds hungry students on weekends

Confidentiality is a big part of the Mascoutah Meals program, so much so that even those packing food for children don’t know who will receive those bags.

“It’s helping the needy,” said J.D. Beaird, 8, a Bear Cub Scout helping to pack up the food on Thursday. “I know there’s some...”

“We talked about this!” his mother interrupted.

J.D. attends Mascoutah Elementary School, where some of the donations will be sent home in children’s backpacks. The small grocery bag has a single can each of pasta, soup and vegetable, as well as applesauce and other snacks to help a hungry child through the weekend.

“I like that it’s local,” said J.D.’s mom, Cindy Beaird.

25 percent Portion of Mascoutah School District students who qualify for free or reduced lunch

Once a month, Mascoutah Meals packs food destined for 120 backpacks in the Mascoutah School District. Organizers say it grew out of a program by the Scott Spouses Club and efforts at a summer food program. Operation Food Search provides canned goods and milk, organizers say, and the community fills in with crackers, applesauce and snack bars. Last year, Operation Food Search, in St. Louis, won a $40,000 grant from The Boeing Company to further help efforts.

“I think they were ecstatic to help the military community,” said Jennifer Campbell, one of the original organizers of the summer program. Campbell helped with the packing one last time on Thursday. On Saturday, she and her family would be moving to Germany for her husband’s next Air Force assignment.

“This matters to me,” she said.

Operation Food Search’s Melissa Mobley said the organization has a number of grants that are not specific to a school or group; she said working with Belleville District 118 was “I think our first adventure into Illinois.”

About 25 percent of Mascoutah School District students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, while almost 30 percent of students at the all-military Scott Elementary School qualify.

The kids are really appreciative. There is a deep gratitude for what they are getting.

Rhonda Ross, organizer of Mascoutah Meals program

Teacher Rhonda Ross, of Mascoutah Middle School, is “the sole survivor” of the first four women to run the program during the school year last April, the others being in military families. One of them updates the group’s Facebook page.

“If I can find the help ... I’d love to do this two times a month,” Ross said. “The kids are really appreciative. There is a deep gratitude for what they are getting.”

She said Mascoutah Meals relies heavily on community support, including “every church in this town” and individual donations to supplement what Operation Food Search provides.

Teachers and paraprofessionals quietly place the bagged food into the children’s backpacks on Friday afternoon.

“They don’t know until they get (the backpacks) out of their lockers,” said Tammy Sartin, a playground aide at Wingate Elementary who was helping out on Thursday. “(Then they say) ‘Oh! It’s really heavy!’”

Ross said the district provides a list of students who qualify for the free lunch program to Mascoutah Meals. Ross and her crew then send parents letters and request permission to provide the food in their child’s backpack the third Friday of every month. She said about 400 students qualified, and about 120 responded. Students who qualify for reduced lunches were not sent a letter, she said.

Mascoutah Meals provides a little more before long holiday weekends, already setting back larger cans of donated soup for the upcoming spring break.

Operation Food Search’s vegetable choice is almost always green beans, peas or mixed vegetables, which was being packed on Thursday.

“I do interview the kids and try to get their feedback. I know they don’t like canned carrots,” Mobley said. “We stick with the basics that we think are popular.”

On Thursday, four of the 10 boys in Leah Schmidt’s Cub Scout den were at Mascoutah Middle School, hoisting cases of food onto the tables before packing bags in an assembly-line style.

“We do (service projects) at least twice a year, but strive to do more,” Schmidt said. “(Mascoutah Meals) seem to need our help.”

Ross and Campbell said previous pack-day helpers included scout troops and teachers, but they have packed up with much smaller numbers. On Thursday afternoon, it took the Scouts and adult helpers about 45 minutes to set the tables and pack the bags.

“They’re really the workforce behind it all,” Mobley said of the Mascoutah Meals organizers. “What we do is actually a small part. ... I give all the credit to them, really.”