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Food bank gets $50k surprise


Published:   |   Updated: March 11, 2013 at 09:04 PM
SEBRING -

Two weeks ago, Michael Oberle got a surprise phone call asking him if the food bank he heads would like to start a backpack feeding program for Sebring kids.

What's more, he was told, if he were interested, Walmart had $50,000 for it.

The Lakeland-based Agape Food Bank supplies food to many food pantries in Highlands County and surrounding areas. In Polk County, they also give food to 700 kids in 12 schools to take home during the weekends when schools are closed.

Extending the backpack feeding program to Highlands County made sense, so Oberle said yes.

But the whole proposition had more elements of surprise. Apparently, someone won a $50,000 grant sponsored by Walmart's Fighting Hunger Together, but Oberle does not know who it is.

"It was an anonymous person," he said.

"It's really neat," he added, how the whole thing panned out.

It turns out a Sebring resident was one of 40 winners randomly selected in Walmart's "Golden Spark" giveaway.

"Golden Spark" winners choose a community for the $50,000 funding to start or expand the backpack program, which provides "vital meals to food-insecure children during weekends when they do not have access to free- and reduced-price school meals."

A news release on behalf of Walmart estimates that the money will provide more than 1,000 children with 6,000 meals for the next year. The program will be done in collaboration with Sebring's Heartland Food Reservoir, which works closely with Agape.

According to Feeding America, 29 percent of Highlands County children are food-insecure. Almost 70 percent of county students receive free or reduced lunches because they meet federal income guidelines.

Oberle said he's still working out the details. In Polk County, each of the backpack schools has a pantry that Agape volunteers keep stocked.

Typically, kids take home nonperishable food such as tuna, macaroni and cheese, rice, beans, milk and cereal — even oranges and orange juice when they're available.

When they return to school after the weekend, they bring their backpacks back. It's the job of the school workers to distribute the food to the students according to the family size.

Oberle says he's going to rely on the schools to pick the students who need help, and he's hoping to get the program rolling after the Christmas holidays.

"This money will enable us to start the program in Sebring, and get it up and going," he said. "We will rely on the community to be able to sustain it through future support."

The Fighting Hunger Together fall initiative is part of Walmart and the Walmart Foundation's $2 billion commitment through 2015 to fight hunger, according to the news release.

Walmart and its foundation pledged to donate more than 1.1 billion pounds of food from Walmart stores, distribution centers and Sam's Club locations, valued at $1.75 billion, as well as $250 million in grants to support hunger relief organizations.

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