Manitowoc parish packages meals for community

Breakfast, lunch bags help fill void as city schools, lunch programs close

MANITOWOC — It didn’t take long for Elizabeth Gruenke, coordinator of youth ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Parish to come up with a plan to help area families following the closing of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, March 16, Gruenke and fellow youth minister Michelle Bishop decided the best way to support families was to provide breakfast and lunch “to-go” meal bags. The following day, they packaged between 90 and 100 bags with snacks, set them outside of the Life Teen House, at the parish’s Waldo worship site, in a large black tote bin. This made it possible for people to drive up and take the bags from the bin.

Elizabeth Gruenke, youth ministry coordinator at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manitowoc, fills breakfast paper bags with cereal boxes and other food March 19. Gruenke and Michelle Bishop, religious education coordinator, wanted to help families in Manitowoc who might need help feeding their children. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“We wanted to make sure the parish was helping to support the practical needs of families or possibly address gaps in services from other organizations,” Gruenke told The Compass. “We’re hoping it also will help families who are struggling with loss of work or loss of income at this time, or families who simply need one less thing to worry about in the midst of trying to now homeschool/watch their children/manage schedules.”

On March 17, the first day of filling to-go bags and setting them outside in the tote bin, Gruenke said all the bags were taken. “We weren’t expecting all of the bags to be gone Tuesday afternoon, so that took us by surprise,” she said. It showed her that the outreach was needed.

Gruenke said she uses white paper bags for breakfast and brown bags for lunch.

“Our lunch ones include either a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or we will do macaroni and cheese cups, mashed potato cups, something that can easily be microwaved, and some sort of fruit or a fruit cup. Then usually something like a granola bar, chips, fruit snacks and pudding.”

They fill the breakfast bags with small cereal boxes or oatmeal, plus fruit bars and fruit or mini donuts. All bags also include a prayer card. “We have a prayer to the Holy Spirit asking for peace, asking for kind of a sense of stability and calm in this time of turbulence,” she said.

Gruenke said that the Manitowoc Public School District is also offering free lunches to all students regardless of public or private school attendance. “But the difficulty is that the lunches are only available for a couple of hours during the day,” she said. “While that works for a lot of families, we also know that it won’t work for all families.”

In addition, the Manitowoc Public School District began its spring break on March 23, and they are not offering lunches during the break, she added. “We are trying to fill in gaps where we can, to the extent that we can.”

Gruenke said the lunch bag project will continue as long as possible. She received a boost last weekend when parishioners donated boxes of macaroni and cheese, granola bars, trail mix, pudding, Jell-O, breakfast sandwiches, muffins, fruit snacks and applesauce. Anyone wanting to learn more or donate to the project can contact Gruenke by email, [email protected].

Free bag lunches in Shawano

Sacred Heart School in Shawano began supplying free bag lunches to school families on March 18. “The school sent out a Google survey to all school families on March 17, asking if the family would participate, how many household members younger than 19 would need a lunch,” Autumne Gee, director of admissions and development at Sacred Heart School said.

The school issued designated sites for families to pick up the bag lunches. “The school averages 55 bag lunches each day and is committed to continuing this free lunch program as long as the school is not in session,” said Gee. “We know that some families need additional assistance in providing nutritious meals to their children while school is canceled.”

Lisa Bantle, the mother of three young children, including Sacred Heart fourth grader Anessa and preschooler Bella, said the lunch bags are a welcome offering. “With school being canceled due to this virus, I am very grateful that Sacred Heart has stepped up and helped the families with these meals,” she said. “As a single parent, it truly helps me out a lot as all three are home all day now.”

Gee said that the coronavirus pandemic affects everyone, and the faith community has a role in helping people through it. “In order for us to overcome it, we must stay steadfast in our faith, keep Jesus in our heart, communicate with each other and do our best by moving forward with programs like free lunches,” she said.