Closing the Meal Gap in Lawrence County
By Melissa Murray
Thanksgiving 2013 is one Alice Garcia will never forget.
She could not sleep. She could barely eat the food in front of her during her family’s holiday meal. She felt guilty. As the Project Coordinator for New Life Bread Basket, a food pantry in Lawrence County, Alice received some unsettling news just days before Thanksgiving.
Several employees of New Castle Area School District recently approached Alice, asking for her help. They explained that about 20 children in the
district were going without food on the weekends. The lunch they received at school on Friday was likely their last meal until school breakfast on Monday morning. They asked for Alice’s help in finding a way to feed these students on the weekends. She agreed to do what she could to help, but needed time to get a program up and running.
Thanksgiving came and went. A holiday that is so focused around food haunted Alice as she imagined those 20 students who likely were not enjoying a holiday meal. Within a week, though, the Lawrence County Backpack Program was created.
When the Backpack Program started, Alice sent home permission slips to all 20 families to inform them that their child would be sent home with food on Friday to last them through the weekend. Two weeks later, the program’s participants doubled and 40 kids were receiving backpacks filled with food.
Alice was able to secure funding for the program and over time, serve more students in the New Castle Area School District. Each school created a team of staff members to serve students in need through a referral system. Alice now serves Ellwood City Area School District along with New Castle, as well as the Head Start program.
Over time, the Lawrence County Backpack Program has grown to serve hundreds of families. Alice estimates at least 400 backpacks are distributed each week, along with the households she serves through the New Life Bread Basket food pantry. Her pantry has helped to distribute 332,545 pounds of food in the last year. She also created a program to provide ‘care packages’ for college students in the area who are in need of food and other resources.
In June 2019, Alice received the Starfish Thrower Award from Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to commemorate her work within the community.
Her participation in WTAE’s Backpack Event in July, where employees packed 3,000 bags for children in need, highlighted the importance of the Backpack Programs that exist in the Food Bank’s 11-county service area.
As one Food Bank employee describes Alice, she is a ‘do anything for whoever needs it at all costs’ kind of person. And while she is in her mid 70s, Alice is a self-proclaimed ‘biker chick’ who has no desire to stop what she is doing anytime soon.