WEST MILTON — A local initiative, supported by area businesses, groups and churches, is working to combat child hunger in the community one bag at a time.
The Bulldog Bags program, which started with 30 students last fall and grew to nearly 100 by the end of May, distributes bags of food every Friday during the school year to Milton-Union students struggling with food insecurity.
While the group takes a break from packing and distributing bags over the summer, organizer Becky Garrett is busy planning to expand the program’s outreach to more than 200 students next school year.
Garrett, a substitute teacher who previously taught in the Piqua school district, knew there were families in the district who were struggling to put food on the table.
“I had kids who benefited from a food bag that they took home every Friday,” Garrett recalled from her time teaching in Piqua. “When I started subbing in Milton, I was interested to know that nobody had started something like that.”
Garrett carefully considered the logistics of starting the program, discussing it with members of her church and school counselors, and praying about it.
“God just kind of opened up doors and kept opening them,” she said.
Individual members of her church, Hoffman United Methodist, agreed to sponsor a group of 30 kindergartners at first, which was Garrett’s initial goal for the program’s first year. By November, that number grew to 41 when school counselors asked if the program could be expanded to the siblings of the original 30 students.
In the beginning, the football team helped pack the bags at the church each week.
“They came to our church to have dinner every Thursday night before the big game on Friday, and so they would package them for me afterwards,” Garrett said. “That was another God thing — I didn’t know how I was going to get it all packaged.”
The program continued to grow, so Bulldog Bags also enlisted the help of the National Honor Society program at the high school.
“They were so gung ho about it, they really wanted to help,” Garrett said.
As Bulldog Bags grew, Garrett met with local clubs and groups to ask for their support. The West Milton Rotary stepped forward in January, agreeing to sponsor all of the first graders in need of the program. This brought the number of students receiving a weekly bag up to more than 70.
By the end of the school year, the number of students receiving a Bulldog Bag had grown to 86. In May, school counselors asked Garrett if the program could handle 220 students next year.
“And I said, ‘OK, if God opens doors, he’s going to open this big huge one for us,’” she said.
Garrett added that the district allows them to store and pack food at the school, but the program will need all the help it can get to continue growing.
Garrett used to buy the food herself at Sam’s Club, but next year the program is partnering with New Path food pantry, which will order in bulk for Bulldog Bags.
Milton-Union Superintendent Brad Ritchey praised Garrett for her efforts in organizing the program, but Garrett stressed that the project has been a community-driven effort.
“Becky was just beside herself that there were children just right in our backyards that might be having concerns over weekends and holiday breaks about how basic needs were going to be met,” Ritchey said. “She’s a very humble person, she would divert all kinds of credit to people that have helped her … She saw the need and wouldn’t rest until there was something in place.”
Garrett said that the program has only been made possible through the support of community members, her church, and local groups and businesses.
Both Garrett and Ritchey pointed out that hunger is an invisible problem in many communities — including the Milton-Union school district, where the number of students on free and reduced lunch is approaching 50 percent.
“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘That many kids? Are you talking K-12?,’ No, I’m talking K-5,” Garrett said.
Even as she celebrates the fledgling program’s success, Garrett is always looking for ways to fund the project, which is more than doubling it’s efforts next school year.
“I’m always praying about it,” she added.
Donations may be made to Hoffman United Methodist Church, 201 S. Main St. in West Milton, which manages the fund for the program. Monetary donations should be marked for Bulldog Bags.
To volunteer or find out more information about the program, visit www.facebook.com/BB4MU. A sponsorship form can also be found on the Bulldog Bags Facebook page.
Reach Cecilia Fox at email@example.com.