With the help of the community, Loving Hearts Outreach has won a $20,000 voters’ choice grant through Wal-Mart to use toward its Food Backpack Program — Fighting Hunger, Fueling Minds.

Loving Hearts teamed up with the Washington School District for the program, which offers food to needy students for the weekend, when school is not in session. The grant will provide food to those same children through the summer.

“This is such a miracle,” said Sandy Crider, executive director of Loving Hearts Outreach. “This is something that has been on our hearts for a long time.”

School counselors were concerned about children who didn’t have proper nutrition over the weekends, Crider said, which is what got the ball rolling on the program.

“Some parents don’t make the best choices for their children,” she said. “We don’t always approve of what the parents are doing, but these are growing children and they need a lot (of nutrition).”

The top 60 agencies received grants, Crider said, noting that Loving Hearts was 46th in the United States. It was the only program in Missouri competing for the grant funds. Loving Hearts was nominated by the St. Louis Food Bank to participate.

“We’ve put a lot of hope in this, and I guess God wanted us to do it,” she said.

The Program

The grant will fund the program for four months. Over the summer, families will get a voucher for a box filled with food to last one week.

Since January, more than 600 bags of food have been provided to children. The number of kids receiving food has increased each week.

The program began at Washington High School, Washington West Elementary, South Point Elementary and Fifth Street Elementary.

Each school receives about 20 to 25 packs of food each week, except the high school where the number is lower. By the time school begins in the fall, the program will be expanded to all 10 schools in the Washington School District, Crider said.

With each dollar, Loving Hearts can purchase 10 pounds of food through the St. Louis Food Bank, which as a “partner agency” received a $45,000 grant.

“Essentially, what is costing us $6 per child would cost $16.52 per week per child if it was purchased at a store. That is a huge savings,” Crider said. “It’s pretty dramatic what this grant will do.”

If the agency had not won the grant, the backpack program would have been “on very shaky territory,” Crider said.

The goal, she said, is to make sure students have not only food, but school supplies and other essential items they may need.

“We’re trying to create a bridge for children in the Washington School District and let them know this is a safe spot,” Crider said. “We want to let them know that they’ve got people out there who have got their backs.”

The Contest

Online voting took place all of April, but it wasn’t as simple as encouraging people to vote. In order to participate in the contest, Loving Hearts was required to have a Facebook page.

“The whole thing was about keeping up momentum, because other agencies are doing the same thing,” Crider said.

People could vote each day through the site and through Facebook.

Crider thanked Washington High School students and Lindsey Jasper, district social worker, for helping with the social media aspect of the contest.

She also thanked the community for helping get the program off the ground, including churches and others who have helped with packing food and distributing food to the children

“This has really been a testimony of the community,” Crider said. “Let me tell you, we started from square one on April 1. I’m kind of an antique dinosaur when it comes to technology. But they pulled me through.”

Crider said she was told “it was a shot in the dark” on whether Loving Hearts could win the grant, as there were a lot of other agencies competing.

“This is such a blessing. It’s unbelievable,” she said.

Grant funds will be available June 1.