Camie Bianco and Liza Fruge get excited over plastic bags.
While this may seem odd at first, their excitement makes sense when you look at the full list of things that really make them jump for joy: packages of peanut butter crackers, cans of SpaghettiOs, squeeze pouches of apple sauce and bags of Cutie brand tangerines.
If you put all these things inside a plastic bag and tie it tight, you get what Bianco and Fruge proudly call a Lovepack. On Friday, the Lovepack will be sent home with a K-12 child in the Oxford-Lafayette community who, otherwise, may not have food that weekend.
Lovepacks is a non-profit organization that provides supplemental food packages to kids struggling with food insecurity in the Oxford and Lafayette County school districts. The organization started when Mary Leary, president of Lovepacks, saw a similar program in another school district.
“[Leary] spoke to a friend of hers who was on the school board and asked if there was a problem with food insecurity inside of the Oxford School District,” Bianco, vice president of Lovepacks, said. “They did a little pilot program in spring 2010 at Bramlett Elementary School. They had about 12 kids that they serviced and then realized that there are more children in our district that have food insecurities.”
After the initial pilot program, Bianco and others were brought on board to help expand the organization, and Lovepacks has been operating ever since. Now in its 12th year, Lovepacks serves more than 250 kids in the Oxford and Lafayette County school districts.
In a community where food insecurity is seemingly invisible, the number of kids that receive Lovepacks can be surprising, Bianco and Fruge said.
“We speak to different organizations, and they’re shocked when we tell them how many students that we know of that have food insecurity,” Bianco said. “There’s no place in town where you would see what you stereotypically think, but there is a need, and it’s attached to many things. When you’re hungry, as a student, it’s hard to concentrate and show up for school.”
There is often another layer of invisibility due to the stigmas and judgment that students sometimes feel from receiving extra food, Fruge and Bianco said.
“We try to be really discreet,” Bianco said. “(Delivery of the Lovepack) depends on whatever that student is comfortable with and not embarrassed by.”
Fruge, with a self-described role as Bianco’s wing-man, said that the organization has experienced an approximate 75-person increase in the number of students they service this year.
“We have more students in our district, and right now, food just costs more. Everything costs more. I think we have more people that need food for that reason,” Fruge said.
At every step of the way, from supply to delivery, Lovepacks relies on support from the community to keep the operation running.
On the supply end, Lovepacks relies on both monetary and direct food donations.
“The community has been super supportive and generous,” Bianco said. “The city pantry gave us start-up seed money, and that’s how we bought our first loads of groceries. We place our orders at Larson’s Cash Savers, a locally owned grocery store that has been working with us since the get-go.”
Although Lovepacks orders groceries directly using monetary donations, there are many times when direct food donations have saved the day.
“It’s crazy to me how often we sit here panicked,” Fruge said. “One day, we were panicking and working it out and one day this lovely man who saw us in an article somewhere drove up with a trunk load of food. (Donations like this) always happen, time and time again.”
On the delivery end, Lovepacks works with many individuals and organizations that help to get the food to its final destination.
Aside from the hard-working network of parents that pick up and distribute food and Lovepacks on a week-to-week basis, Fruge and Bianco highlighted two important groups of packers.
The first group is students in the special education programs at Oxford Middle School and Oxford High School.
“We really couldn’t do it without them,” Bianco said.
Kim McCarty, a special education teacher at Oxford Middle School, said that helping with Lovepacks benefits not only students with food insecurity but also the students in her class.
“Our kids love it, and it teaches them working skills,” McCarty said. “When they get to the high school, they can get jobs so this helps them start training. This really helps the community, and they take pride in it.”
The second group is fraternity and sorority organizations on campus. Bianco and Fruge rattled off a long list of organizations but noted Sigma Nu and Phi Delta Theta as some of the most recent contributors.
Daneel Konnar, a junior public policy and leadership major and member of Phi Delta Theta, talked about why his fraternity decided to work with Lovepacks.
“Our mission was to connect our Phi Delt community with the Oxford-Lafayette community. Even though we live in this great, beautiful college town, there are still people who need our help,” Konnar said.
With the holidays coming up and food prices rising, Bianco and Fruge highlighted how important it is for people to consider donating to and supporting Lovepacks.
“We’re at Thanksgiving, and budget-wise we’re almost where we were at the end of the year last year,” Fruge said. “The biggest thing is either a financial donation or food donation.”
To learn more about how and what items to donate, individuals can visit the Lovepacks website and social media accounts.
Bianco and Fruge also noted how people can help support Lovepacks’ long-term growth. Bianco was enthusiastic about keeping current partnerships and establishing new ones. Fruge noted the goal of having a dedicated Lovepacks pantry space.
In the end, Bianco went back to raising awareness about food insecurity.
“The big thing is that the community continues to be aware that it’s still a problem and a growing problem,” he said. “It’s something that we can all help even if it’s just a little bit. You know, Mother Teresa said if you can’t feed a million people, at least feed one.”