Food and fun in the school holidays
Before footballer Marcus Rashford – and his campaign for free school meals in holiday times – there was Rugeley Community Church (RCC), which is one of the partner churches of Jubilee+.
In the years before the Covid crisis hit, the church had already become increasingly concerned about holiday hunger, inactivity and social isolation out of school term-times. Among a wealth of information on feeding Britain, one national study reported that significant numbers of children from disadvantaged families were showing an 80% drop in their activity levels over the holidays. This was attributed to them missing their free school meals, being isolated from school friends, and not having opportunities to be active in sport.
RCC was not one of those churches that if they closed tomorrow no one in their community would notice! In 2015 it had taken over the running of a community centre as a community hub (where the church also meets). The leaders were wondering whether or how their foodbank might connect with a work to serve families struggling during holiday times, when, at a local meeting, they were approached by a representative of Inspiring Healthy Lifestyles that runs the local leisure centre. The church seemed to them like a group who could run a ‘Fit and Fed’ project and so it was that ‘Active–ate Rugeley’ began. This approach was both God’s favour and his timing.
The work began in 2018 with a holiday club running three days a week over four weeks during the summer holidays. Partnering with Inspiring Healthy Lifestyles helped gain access to external funding and, where the church lacked skills or resources, they were able to buy-in sports coaches or craft expertise. The club focused on primary-age children with their parents or guardians and was free. Families were given breakfast and lunch each day plus a wide range of sporting opportunities for the children, with a variety of art/creative sessions for the whole family. In 2019 a similar format was provided, now in each school holiday.
An Easter event had been planned for 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic forced a cancellation. However, it soon became clear that this was not to be a short-term shutdown and as summer approached the outlook for many families was extremely uncertain. Lockdown was bringing multiple challenges, not least parents with children juggling home working and education. Added to this many parents lacked the skills, imagination, and resources to occupy their children over a longer period. For some parents, their own experience of schooldays had not been positive, and they felt inadequate as teachers. Consequently, being provided with activities ‘on a plate’ would prove a godsend for many.
Initially a programme of home deliveries to 40 families over four weeks was planned. In the first week a full stationery kit was delivered, followed by each family receiving a ‘Craftive-ate’ bag which included craft projects, science experiments, origami, ‘make-it’ kits and colouring. In addition, a food parcel provided a couple of meals with food being supplied by local supermarkets and the church’s own Foodbank. Every Wednesday, a full pre-cooked meal was delivered for each member of the family, sourced by an outside caterer.
When lockdown eased last autumn, a sports session to small groups of children could be offered and a ‘Light Party’ craft bag was distributed as an alternative to Halloween. By Christmas – with lockdown in place again – the project adapted again, linked to the church’s upcoming Christmas Nativity. As well as receiving the ingredients to make their own mince pies, colouring materials enabled the children to contribute to the artwork for a video played as a backdrop to the nativity story. All the families were given a link to the Christmas celebration.
In the New Year, families were provided with a ‘Pick me up box’ with some treats and a ‘What’s on Where’ WOW leaflet, followed in the February half-term break with the delivery of food parcels, pancake ingredients and activity ideas. A video of families pancake-flipping was made!
Heading for Easter this year another Craftive-ate bag was dispatched – now serving 70 families. Along with egg decorating, an Easter Garden and baking ideas, the church also provided ‘The Easter Story’ book by J. John, highlighting these words, “This is the most important story ever told. Although sad at times, it’s also the happiest story … that’s because it’s true!"
And this summer plans are underway to organise events at the community centre, to provide food, sport, craft and other activities during August.
Lessons from Rugeley
Other churches can draw lessons from Rugeley. Here is a church keen to seek the well-being of its community. Even before the experience of Covid and lockdown, the church was seeing the bigger picture: seeing the need to address inequalities in family life. It saw links between hunger, inactivity, and isolation out of school term-times, and an opportunity to support families.
The second aspect is that size of the church congregation is not an issue. RCC is not especially large but, experiencing the favour of others, it has been willing to partner and draw on the expertise of people in the wider community. Third, the work has been adaptable, changing to the delivery of activities and food when face-to-face contact has not been possible during the Covid crisis. And finally, the church has taken the opportunity to use the Christian calendar to bring a gospel focus, at every stage acknowledging God’s timing, his direction and his favour on this work.