Photo by Justin Merriman

On a hot July morning in the Allegheny Mountains, 15 volunteers are busy in a church kitchen, slicing cucumbers, washing apples, making and bagging and counting sandwiches – a labor of love that’s only complete when 200 healthy sack lunches have been handed one-on-one to the kids in their community.

But even then the job’s not really done. The next morning they’ll do it again. And the next day, again. And again and again, every weekday, volunteers will make lunches until school starts.

They chat and laugh while they work, but the importance of what these people are doing, why they need to do it, and who they are doing it for, does not evade them.

“There’s a big need,” says one woman quietly, while she spreads peanut butter on bread. “The families need help. Children have to be fed.”

Seven years ago, Lion Susan Munck was encouraged as mission chairman of her church to help those families, to start the Summer Lunch Box program in Frostburg, Maryland, two hours south of Pittsburgh. Before long, the support of the Frostburg Lions and the nearby Mount Savage Mason-Dixon Lions grew to the point that the church effort became a Lion project.

“Well, a lot of families are in need,” says Bill Munck, Susan’s husband of 35 years and the president of the Frostburg Lions. “A lot of people don’t have jobs. There’s poverty. You just have to know where to look.”

More than half of the children here in the Allegheny County public schools receive free and reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program. In the summer, that vital nutrition is cut off. They and their parents are left to make do, and some do better than others.

A total of 1,000 sack lunches were given out in the summer of 2013 when the program began. By 2015, 1,000 had grown to 6,800, and this year it reached close to 8,000. Bill Munck expects their numbers might increase another 10 percent next year as economic hardship hangs in a cloud over the scenic mountains.

Taking care of their own

Frostburg, home to Frostburg State University, is a small city of about 9,000, where western Maryland meets northern West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. For many years it was a coal town. Other big companies like Goodyear Tire & Rubber and Pittsburgh Plate Glass helped to keep a steady number employed, but they both shut their doors. Then in June, the Luke Mill, a paper mill that employed generations over 131 years, closed and left 675 people out of work.

Six hundred and seventy-five is about the population of many of the small towns in the area, including the town of Luke.

Portia Blank of Mason-Dixon Lions. Photo by Justin Merriman

How many more will get caught in the ripples? Some estimate that for every job lost, three associated jobs will be eliminated.

Susan Munck remembers how she first doubted that she and her husband, both retirees, could lead this lunch project, tackle all this. “It’s too much,” she thought at first. But the more she talked about it with others, the more apparent the need for it became.

She knew the community would come forward to help, she says, because in small towns like Frostburg, and especially Mount Savage, people are known to look out for their own. But it also eased her mind to know they have a strong Lions club behind them. Sixteen Frostburg Lions were involved in Lunch Box this summer.

Bill Munck of the Frostburg Lions. Photo by Justin Merriman

And maybe she discovered what her community already knew – that a tiny woman like her can have a really big heart.

“Here’s the woman,” announces volunteer Sally Knotts, stopping her salad making to wrap her arm around Munck and give her a squeeze. “When you have somebody like her, someone who gives so much, you can get a lot done. What you see here is all Bill and Susan. They do a lot more than we will ever do.”

Sandy Stevens, program volunteer. Photo by Justin Merriman

Bill Munck shrugs it off. “The Good Lord wants me to do it, I guess,” he says later. “Three heart attacks and diabetes, and I’m still here. Families here can use the help.”

The Lunch Box Program runs like a highly organized, impressive machine thanks to Susan and Bill, who has been legally blind since birth but manages to send out all the letters, record the numbers, and make the charts. Susan keeps track of the food, of exactly how many lunches go to each location for distribution each day, and which lunches are for children with allergies. She apparently has it memorized. And they have a loyal co-coordinator, Frostburg Lion Vicky Peterson who also volunteers at the town’s food pantry.

“This is an amazing example of community partnerships,” says Bill. “All these groups with all their differences and diversity have but one goal, and that is to feed our kids.”

How it happens

The Muncks begin each year by sending out what she calls “beg letters,” appealing to the generosity of local clubs, companies, churches, and more, and this year about US$12,000 came back to fund the program. They take no government money, and Susan is not only adamant about that, but proud of it.

Volunteer Sally Knotts with Lion Susan Munck. Photo by Justin Merriman

Then letters are sent through the schools to the parents of all children from preschool through high school in Frostburg, the unincorporated areas nearby, and to Mount Savage, asking only if their child would like to have a summer lunch, and if there are allergies.

The Muncks watch prices and shop locally for the food, keeping the community’s money in the local economy. When schools close for summer, groups from churches, clubs, schools, and businesses each schedule a week to volunteer. There is no shortage of help. But every weekday for the entire nine weeks, the Muncks and Peterson are there to assist and organize for the next morning. Frostburg Lion Meredith Medearis comes daily as well, and she is lovingly dubbed “the vegetable lady.”

Boys in Frostburg enjoy their lunches. Photo by Justin Merriman

No food or job is left for Monday morning. On Fridays, all leftovers go home with Frostburg Lion Sheryl Diehl who delivers them to a retirement village where the food can be shared.

Bradley Cowan waiting to bring home his lunch in Mount Savage. Photo by Justin Merriman

“We have no waste,” says Susan. “I hate waste. That’s my mantra.”

What’s for lunch?

A two-sack lunch for each child includes two fresh sandwiches, a peanut butter & jelly, and a meat and cheese, an apple or banana, chips, vegetables, a small dessert, and a drink. Twice a week it includes yogurt, and once a week, a small bagged salad with ranch dressing.

Once complete, the lunches are counted and separated into coolers that go to each of seven locations throughout Frostburg and to Mount Savage.

At the Trinity Assembly of God Church where it all happens, and where Susan says the pastor’s only response to her requests has always been “sure,” Frostburg State University student Emily O’Neal wheels the coolers to a van for these deliveries.

“I didn’t have anything else to do on Tuesday mornings, so why not?” she responds to the question of “why?”

“Why sit at home?”

She points across the room toward Susan and Bill.

“They get it,” she says.

Volunteer Sandy Stevens, a retired teacher, gets her purse to head home but goes first to get a cooler with 20 lunches. She loads it in the trunk. On the way home she’ll stop for another hour, set up her lawn chair in the parking lot of the Methodist church in Eckhart, and sit and wait for the local children to walk or bicycle over for their lunch.

Brexlee and Jaxon Emerick pick up their lunches. Photo by Justin Merriman

She will welcome each like a favorite niece or nephew.

“My husband lost his job a few years ago, and that’s when we started this,” says Katie Everly as her children visit with Stevens. “It really helped us. It’s really wonderful what they’re doing.”

In Mount Savage, “they” are Mason-Dixon Lions Allen and Portia Blank who go daily to help volunteers hand out about 40 lunches at St. George’s Episcopal Church. There are no fast food restaurants, stores or gas stations with snacks in their mountainside town. People aren’t starving, says Allen Blank. But Lunch Box definitely takes pressure off the parents and helps the children eat healthy.

“You like to know that you’re helping the town, helping the young people,” says Portia Blank, president of the Mason-Dixon Lions. As she talks, Steven Wannamaker follows his energetic 3-year-old son, Drayke, and his nephew up the hill to the church for their lunches.

Wannamaker tells of a relative who took in three children and has three of his own. “He has six mouths to feed every day. That’s a lot in the summer,” he says. “It’s helpful for parents, especially when they can‘t afford the extra expense of feeding the kids lunch every day.”

Every day, at the Frostburg Inter-Faith Food Pantry on Main Street, Vicky Peterson and director Bob Duncan, a 10-year volunteer, see this struggle that families face in trying to feed healthy meals to their children. In 1977, when the pantry opened, they served 29 families. By 2018, that number had risen to 673, and Duncan is sure it will continue to rise, especially since the mill closed.

But it’s not just unemployment that sends people here or makes them need a free or reduced-price lunch for their child, says Duncan. It’s mental health, stress, addiction, and most often, under employment. People are not making enough money to keep their home and feed their kids. And affording food is not their only struggle. “It’s a struggle to walk in here,” he says. “There’s a lot of pride.”

“I’m blessed,” says Peterson. “I’m not foolish enough to think that things can’t happen to you and change your life on a dime.”

At the nearby university, the FSU Lions also started a pantry to serve all students, and that includes parents trying to build their skills and improve their chances at employment or a higher paying job.

“Do you buy a book or do you buy food?” asks FSU Lion Patrick O’Brien, the university’s director of civic engagement. “When you’re in school and you have to have the book, good food falls pretty far down on the list of how you’ll spend your money. But when you have to buy a book and feed a family, that’s another whole struggle.”

Susan Munck, at summer’s end, is asked if she and Bill will gather the folks to help make all these lunches again and again next summer.

“Well,” she says. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t.”