Denise Pagel is pleased to see food lining the shelves of the Chatfield United Methodist Church's backpack food program pantry.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->
Denise Pagel is pleased to see food lining the shelves of the Chatfield United Methodist Church's backpack food program pantry. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS

Denise Pagel persistently sought to fulfill a local mission - to provide a supplemental food program for Chatfield families, especially ensuring that the community's children were well fed and nourished.

"Denise was very clear that this was something she wanted to see happen for the children of Chatfield," said Chatfield United Methodist Church (CUMC) Pastor Debra Collum. "I was 100 percent behind this, as every church I have served had some type of supplemental food program attached to it. Chatfield seemed like a town in need of this sort of thing. Denise . . . was like the woman in the Gospels who just keeps knocking at the door until the judge gives her an audience."

Pagel, a member of the church, has started a local mission to provide bags of weekend food for Chatfield Elementary students who might otherwise have to wait for Monday to have another meal.

Pagel, Collum and the congregation of CUMC now have partnerships with Chatfield Elementary School and Channel One Food Bank in Rochester as a way to convey supplemental food to families with elementary children. Pagel had learned of the Channel One Backpack Food Program and determined that ingredients for a peanut butter sandwich, a box of cereal, some applesauce and some fresh fruit might serve as salve for growly stomachs and sore souls.

"The Channel One Backpack Program launched in 2010, and all Rochester elementary and middle schools are actively participating in such a program," Pagel said. "Chatfield is joining St. Charles, Stewartville, Byron, Dodge Center and Austin, who also have programs. Families are struggling trying to provide the food their families need."

She added that area teachers are hearing children say they are hungry and when meeting with the school liaison personnel, she said they found that others were supportive of this program as well.

Superintendent Ed Harris was formerly at a district with such a program...and Pagel said they all realized that good nutrition helps children feel well and make them ready to learn.

The CUMC project was started when Pagel attended a mission study on poverty last summer at St. John's University.

Collum led the study and all Pagel could think of was that it was "time for action," that she had to be willing to be director of a local mission program to address poverty.

Collum related that when Pagel proposed the project, there was no hesitation on the church's part.

"The timing is working out perfectly for everyone involved," she said. "I am the cheerleader, the encourager and a member of the community who will assist Denise in any way she needs to make this work. I believe in this program."

Pagel and Collum feel that community awareness of persistent hunger among Chatfield's schoolchildren isn't as strong as it should be.

Pagel stated, "I think more awareness is needed. The Chatfield Community Sharing Tree Project served 56 families with a total of 155 children this last December."

Collum concurred, "As a pastor, I was surprised at that number. I didn't realize that was the number of families served through the program. We took a survey of the participants of the Christmas project, asking them if they would use a food shelf in Chatfield. A great majority responded that they would."

Pagel said food bags numbered by the director to identify a family will be sent home on Fridays, typically, or the last day before a long weekend, at the elementary school.

"Letters were sent out to families with children in grades kindergarten through six, and families with children in those grades who have self-selected to be in the weekend food program will receive a bag," she said. "The oldest child in the family will receive and take home the bag. Long holiday weekends will have extra food in the bag. If a child is ill that day, a parent may choose to pick up the bag."

The program, currently only available during the school year, is reliant upon the generosity of the community.

"The church will accept both food and cash donations. We want to always keep nutrition in mind, as well, in regard to food choices. Right now, we have plenty of Cheerios, jelly, pudding, peanut butter and applesauce. Bread and fresh fruit are free items for the program at Channel One," Pagel explained. "The checks we receive will actually be used for payment of our Channel One products ordered to help balance what we provide weekly. Our order to Channel One is placed over the computer the week before and picked up the following week."

The first donations were accepted and blessed on Sunday, Feb. 9, at CUMC.

Pagel recounted, "Our first check came from Marshalltown, Iowa, through a congregation member's family. How cool is that?"

The church's regular Wednesday morning group makes quilts, does crafts and has conversation, and they made a large donation of food as well, Pagel said.

"Our United Methodist Women (UMW) led the service, which was on poverty," she continued. "Our Sunday school children began the day by singing 'Jesus Loves Me,' carrying food to the altar. The congregation was asked to donate specific food items for the kickoff into the program."

Pagel said the first distribution will take place on Friday, March 7, just in time for Minnesota Food Share Month.

Collum reiterated that the program is a community project, not just a CUMC outreach mission.

"We will be relying on a total community effort, just as for the Christmas project," she said. "These are OUR children. Everyone who hears about the program wants to help. It is so gratifying to hear how this program has opened up hearts in our community."

CUMC will welcome anyone who wishes to lend a hand in readying bags for delivery to the elementary school, according to the pastor.

"We will also enjoy having groups or individuals help with packing the bags and delivering the bags to the elementary school," she added. "If churches would like to do a program on poverty we would be happy to help them with the materials for the program. We truly want this to be a community program. But we want anyone in Chatfield who is interested in healthy children to feel that they can be a part of this."

Furthermore, CUMC's partnership with Channel One Food Bank is advantageous because not only did it help establish the weekend food program in Chatfield, it set up a nonprofit organization through which a food shelf may someday be organized.

Pagel explained, "Now that we have become an agency - as CUMC - we are able to do other programs in the future without reapplying, such as if we wanted a local food shelf here."

Collum stated, "Every child deserves a full stomach. In a land that is overflowing with food, it is a shame that some children cannot have what they need to be fed. We are helping families fill in the gaps and keep their children healthy so that they can become excellent learners."

Tax-deductible donations by check - made out to the "Chatfield Weekend Food Program" - can be sent or dropped off at the CUMC church office at Chatfield United Methodist Church, 124 Winona St. SE, Chatfield, MN, 55923, with the note "Attn: Weekend Food Program" on the envelope.

Food items may also be dropped off at the church. Pagel is also currently seeking local business owners who would like to sponsor cash collection boxes at various locations in Chatfield.

For more information, to donate food or cash, or to assist with the distribution, contact Denise Pagel at (507) 867-3585 or e-mail her at denpag@q.com.

"We know that we won't solve every problem in a child's life through this program," Collum concluded. "But we are doing something and doing something is better than doing nothing. We are doing what God asks us to do - feed the hungry, give joy to those who have little."