As Lori Hayes watched young and old, members of community groups or families with no club affiliation, students who excel on the field or are leaders in their class, come together to pack meals for local residents, she was reminded that society isn’t as divisive as the national political scene might suggest.

“It really shows what a fantastic community we have,” said Hayes, who organized the event for the Stafford Rotary Club. “You give them an opportunity to give back, and they’ll do it. They showed that on Saturday. They said, ‘We can tackle this together.’ ”

And tackle the 241 volunteers did, to the tune of packing 40,000 individual servings of cinnamon–apple oatmeal. The group included various clubs, teams, service groups and National Honor Society members from high schools in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties, with the biggest contingent from Mountain View High School, where the packing was held.

There also were adults from civic groups and churches, as well as representatives from area food pantries.

Volunteers wearing never-go-out-of-style hairnets formed an assembly line and added oats, dried apples, spice and sugar, one scoop at a time. They loaded eight servings per resealable bag and put 36 bags (or 288 servings) per box.

Then, workers packed and sealed 138 boxes.

Almost every box was picked up after the packaging Saturday; Hayes still has two to deliver. And every single serving of hot cereal will stay in the region, where it will be distributed by pantries in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties and Fredericksburg.

“We have a tremendous need here in this region, and 40,000 meals went like that,” Hayes said, snapping her finger.

For three years, the Stafford Rotary Club, which has about 30 members, has vowed to put more food on the table for those who don’t have enough.

Even though Stafford has one of the highest median household incomes in Virginia ($112,795 compared with the state average of $71,535), about 6 percent of its residents face issues of food insecurity. That means they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, according to Feeding America.

That’s the lowest in the region. Fredericksburg has the highest rate of food insecurity at almost 15 percent. Rates for children are higher; recent figures from Feeding America show one in nine local children struggle to get enough to eat.

Those statistics are one reason the Rotarians decided to pack breakfast this year. The beginning of summer signals the end of free or reduced school lunches and breakfasts, meaning that more kids will have less to eat.

SERVE, or Stafford Emergency Relief through Volunteer Efforts, got 17 boxes on Saturday and will include many of the meals in kid bags it packs for the summer, said Executive Director Michael Elliott. SERVE doesn’t purchase any food, but relies on donations from the public to keep its warehouse stocked.

“It’s fabulous, just fabulous when we can get this kind of donation in one lump sum,” he said.

While Rotary members set their focus on providing meals to the community three years ago, one member heard last year about Meals of Hope, a program started by a Rotarian in Florida. Meals of Hope provides ingredients for five different meals, which can be purchased for about 25 cents each.

The program provides all the supplies and instructions.

Stafford Rotary members used proceeds from its annual casino night and other fundraisers to pay for 40,000 meals. Last year, the group was in the running for a $25,000 grant from State Farm, but didn’t get enough online votes to be a finalist.

Hayes, who chairs the group’s community service efforts, dreams about how many meals the Rotary could sponsor if it had that kind of money.

Danielle O’Toole is married to Stafford Rotary president Trevor O’Toole, and she also leads Mountain View’s Interact Club, a service group sponsored by the Rotary. She regularly sees students who are hungry, including those who work after school to help support their families.

She was pleasantly surprised that so many students volunteered to help on a Saturday morning. She believes they liked the idea of packaging meals, which would in turn help people in their community.

“Forty thousand meals won’t even scratch the surface of what may be needed in our area,” O’Toole said, “but I think it’s definitely a good start, and hopefully, we’ll be able to continue this for years to come.”

For more information or to help with the program, contact Hayes at lori@ihayes.com.

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Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425 cdyson@freelancestar.com

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