News Story

Interfaith Partnership Feeds Hungry Students

A school lunch program run by the United Church in Okotoks, Alberta, shows interfaith collaborations are necessary. Volunteers from the United Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints work side by side to help combat childhood hunger in the community.

It’s so simple. Kids are hungry and they need food,” says program organizer Brian Olson, a member of the United Church congregation.

Since 2014, Brian and his wife, Shannon, have organized volunteers to make lunches for children in grades K–12 who would otherwise go hungry. In 2020, volunteer efforts were expanded to include volunteers from the Calgary Foothills Alberta Stake. Bill and Barb Gibson are the stake JustServe co-ordinators and are passionate about the school lunch program.

Supporting the United Church just made sense,” Barb says. “Actually getting in there and helping is the real purpose of the JustServe program, and our partnership is exactly what the Saviour would want us to do.”

Brian believes this kind of interfaith approach to community service is important. “Our dream goal is to have an even bigger partnership with the [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. The broader the base we get in the community, the more sustainable it is,” he says.

This past year, under the direction of Church Welfare and Self-Reliance services, the Church donated $10,000 to the program to help cover rising food costs associated with soaring inflation. The program costs about $40,000 a year, including providing students with gift cards for groceries to ensure they have food during school breaks.

We were overwhelmed when we learned the extent of the program and the time it takes to run it,” Bill says. “The Olsons and their love for the children in town is apparent in their dedication to this program.”

The Olsons raise all the money needed to support the program, shop for food and connect with local school administrators to identify how many children are in need. Twice a week, volunteers from both congregations get together to assemble the lunches and deliver them to community schools.

In this day and age, we can’t have kids hungry when they’re trying to learn. It’s important because they’re our future,” Shannon says.

Brian agrees and says he is often reminded how much these lunches are needed, especially when he noticed a boy sitting in the office at a recent lunch drop-off. The school receptionist asked if the boy could have his lunch now. Brian remembers that day.

I was told this little boy hadn’t eaten for 48 hours, and it broke my heart. This shouldn’t happen in our community,” Brian says. “You say, ‘How could this be?’”

Brian continues, “We’ve also been told some kids are filling up on water, so that they could have their stomachs full — that’s here in Okotoks.”

Shannon recalls the countless times school administrators have reaffirmed this program is needed.

We’ve heard there are kids who’ve had behaviour issues, and since they’ve been getting lunch, things have calmed down,” Shannon says.

Volunteers also make sure the lunches are healthy. Brown bags include fruit and vegetables, a sandwich, and a snack.

Some kids haven’t had a vegetable in their lives, but they have now because of our program,” Shannon says.

It’s been an eye-opener to see just how many hours the Olsons have put in over the years,” Bill says. “There’s always work to do, and we’ve felt very welcomed by the other volunteers at the United Church.”

Brian believes volunteering is an important way to live one’s faith. “I wouldn’t go to a church that just came together on Sunday, and then you go home and forget about it,” he says. “You’ve got to live it.”

Barb believes the program is an excellent example of love and service. “It’s been quite incredible to work beside all these amazing volunteers and help children who really need it,” she says.

As the Foothills community grows and financial challenges continue to affect so many families, the Olsons are determined to keep the program sustainable well into the future.

Brian says one thing that keeps the group going is “knowing that the need is there, and we are filling it. Knowing there is hope somewhere for these kids.”

The school lunch program continues to take donations online. See or for more information about the United Church and the school lunch program.

See for volunteering opportunities in your community. JustServe does the work of researching organizations, finding service projects, co-ordinating schedules and bringing local service projects to your fingertips.

Read the story in French

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