Mac and cheese and peas. Mac and cheese and tuna. Mac and cheese and, yes, baloney. Or just regular mac and cheese.
What could one do with 20,000 boxes of mac and cheese? Says Operation HeartFELT: "Feed more than 20,000 empty little tummies."
The grass roots organization that's been stuffing backpacks with pantry staples for needy youngsters since 2009 has launched a campaign called 20,000 Hearts, with a goal to gather that many boxes of mac and cheese and other kid likables. The hoped-for largess will provide a stockpile of take-home nonperishables for youngsters next school year.
Why mac and cheese?
"It's that staple item children are always going to eat," said Rick Garrett, co-director of HeartFELT (Feeding Empty Little Tummies). "It's easy to add to. It's an inexpensive item."
Brightly labeled collection barrels and boxes, donated by Accuform, a sign manufacturer, have been placed at 28 sites throughout Hernando County, from fitness centers to doctors' offices, hair salons, restaurants and retailers.
Here's how filling tummies works: Schools identify youngsters who might not be getting enough to eat over weekends and during school breaks. Mostly, these are students nourished on weekdays by free and reduced-price meals at school. The total number of children in a household is ascertained. The youngsters drop off their backpacks at school on Friday mornings. HeartFELT volunteers fill them with sufficient food for breakfasts, lunches and dinners over the two-day weekend. Students pick up the backpacks at the end of classes Friday.
HeartFELT doesn't know its recipients' names. A tag in the backpack bears the child's school-assigned identity number along with the count of the family's children.
Last year, volunteers packed approximately 55,000 meals, said Garrett, an increase from 40,000 the previous year.
"This year, things somewhat exploded," said Garrett. The program is closing in on 100,000 meals by the end of the school year this month. "We just found more of a need," Garrett explained. "And schools cooperated better."
Offered to all 23 district schools, 13 agreed to take part in 2016-17.
"Once people learn there's no stigma, no peer pressure, simply let's feed 'em … they sign on," said Garrett, who has been leading the program for more than eight of its nine years.
Until now, HeartFELT has operated with financial donations from businesses and good-hearted individuals, with occasional food drives by local churches and civic organizations.
"You can't keep going back to the same people for money," Garrett said.
Thus, "wouldn't it be interesting to get out to people of the county?" posed Virginia Singer, a HeartFELT volunteer board member and Hernando County government's public information manager.
20,000 Hearts was born.
At collections sites since May 1, "the outpouring is phenomenal, just amazing," Garrett said. "Every place is designing their own way to do it."
At Creative Environmental Technologies, where Garrett is controller, the 10 employees decided on a contest, each worker trying to outdo the others with donations. Their boss, George Foster, promised to match their giving, paced by 261 boxes rounded up by Holly Petty. The overall result boasts 1,600 boxes of mac and cheese, a sea of blue and yellow crowding the firm's conference room.
A dental office, with a container inside its door, is mentioning the collection on each reminder-of-appointment call it makes.
Cub Scout Troop 71 of First United Methodist Church of Brooksville solicited donations outside Winn-Dixie in Brooksville on a recent Saturday, filling a pickup truck in four hours.
Jody Garrett enlisted 64 hearts from Monday Night Ladies League bowlers at Spring Hill Lanes, resulting in donations not only of mac and cheese, but ramen noodles, canned tuna fish, peanut butter and jelly.
From financial contributions, HeartFELT purchases loaves of bread weekly for inclusion.
Stuffing the backpacks is expected to come easier for volunteers this fall with specially framed and heavy stitched packs being provided by Interconnect Cable and Technology Corp. USA.
An Interconnect affiliate designed an easy-open and sturdy tote with small wheels so young children can easily maneuver them.
The 20,000 Hearts campaign initially planned to collect bins when full, then redistribute them to other sites. But, so far, sponsors have kept the containers so patrons can fill them again, Petty reported.
Also, initially the campaign was expected to run just until the end of May.
"It's become a people to people to people thing," Garrett said, "volunteers, school teachers and administrators, donors, businesses, families. We'll just keep it going."
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]