Lynden, Wash., is a place of fertile fields where roots of faith run deep. Yet even amid plenty, there is hunger.  

Hope Lutheran Church in Lynden is making connections with its community to ensure that schoolchildren have enough food to eat on weekends, with help from ELCA World Hunger’s Backpack Buddies how-to guide. 

Tammy Yoder, a member of Hope, said a one-page announcement about ELCA Backpack Buddies Guide, part of ELCA World Hunger’s 2017 Lenten Action Guide, caught her eye. “We aren’t a large congregation and not full of young people, so we needed something where simple donations of food can go a long way,” she said. 

Yoder’s children graduated from Lynden schools, so after ordering the how-to guide and researching online, she felt confident in approaching Courtney Ross, Fisher Elementary School’s principal. “I explained I had an idea for a new program that would help students who are food insecure, especially on the weekends,” she said.  

Hope received the go-ahead and started a nine-week program at Fisher, where 15 students each received a bag of food every weekend. The school has the highest percentage of students in Lynden’s district who are eligible for free or reduced-meal programs. 

“I promised [the principal] we would be here for all nine weeks, even if that meant I put forth all the money personally,” Yoder said. “We feed hungry kids with simple, kid-friendly food. No red tape.” 

The Backpack Buddies guide that Yoder ordered was created after the ELCA noticed an increase in such ministries nationwide and received more applications for Domestic Hunger Grants that focused on such programs, said Ryan Cumming, ELCA program director for hunger education.

“I promised [the principal] we would be here for all nine weeks, even if that meant I put forth all the money personally. We feed hungry kids with simple, kid-friendly food. No red tape.”

“As this guide developed, we spoke with many folks who direct or participate in backpack programs, and our principle writer was involved with a back-pack program in her community,” Cumming said.  

Such programs, he added, have profound effects on children’s lives. “By attending to their needs now, we can help them better meet their own needs in the future,” Cumming said.  

Children who aren’t hungry can focus on schoolwork, learning the skills they need to give back to their communities as adults. 

A growing ministry 

Since learning of Backpack Buddies, Yoder said she sensed that this was a program an entire community could embrace. 

She was right. 

Restaurants, a dairy women’s association, other churches, local media, Lynden’s Project Hope Food Bank and friends all supported the ministry. After the first nine weeks, Yoder began fall 2017 with “a small surplus.” 

That September, Hope hosted a harvest dinner, bringing people together for a meal featuring local produce. The event raised around $1,200 for the backpack ministry. 

Members from Lynden’s First Reformed Church read about Hope’s program on Facebook, and after the harvest dinner they met with Yoder. “They were going back to their church the next day and talked with their pastor about getting involved,” she said. 

Soon, Calvary Creekside, a nondenominational church in Lynden, was involved too. 

Carrying the Backpack Buddies guide, Hope’s mission statement and a sample food bag, Yoder introduced the program to Lynden’s other elementary schools. “Now all three schools are being served,” she said, adding that the ministry now reaches 30 students at each school. 

Cumming described backpack ministries as a special blessing in communities like Lynden. “Rural communities often have high rates of food insecurity but fewer community services in a given geographic area for residents to access,” he said. “Since back-pack programs operate through schools, this challenge is addressed.” 

Yoder said friendships between each church’s members have grown with Backpack Buddies, whose leaders meet twice a month.  

“Our different faith traditions have not been a factor,” she said. “We rarely talk about our churches; we do talk about God’s blessings, but we know we all worship the same God, just in different buildings.” 

As Lynden addresses local hunger, Cumming said ELCA Advocacy continues its national efforts. These include advocating for jobs and affordable housing; affordable and nutritious food for all communities; and funding for federal efforts, including the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.  

“Our community response through backpack programs comes alongside these broader public programs to cooperatively address hunger,” he said. “But without both—relief and advocacy—our response can only go so far.” 

Rachel K. Hindery
Rachel K. Hindery is a freelance reporter and a member of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Ill.

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