Secret Meals caters to local children in need

Secret Meals caters to local children in need

Volunteers put together meals for the Secret Meals for Hungry Children organization. Photo courtesy of Kelley Porter

Since 2008, Alabama Credit Union has run Secret Meals for Hungry Children, a non-profit that seeks to feed the one in five children below the poverty line in the state.

“I’ve actually had some ... parents come up to me and say, ‘We both lost our job in the same week, we didn’t know how we were going to make ends meet,” said Keith Swofford, who works at the credit union. “Our child came home with this food pack, and their grades got better, their performance in school is better, they were more social, happier and that’s the thing we like to see.”

Since its inception, the program has expanded from Tuscaloosa County throughout Alabama, with the number of kids helped steadily growing.

“Kids are identified by school officials and teachers as potentially going hungry over the weekend, they’re malnourished, they can tell when a kid comes back from the weekend, they eat a lot heavier meals on Monday and they tend to secretly put some away in their backpack for later,” Swofford said.

Schools then tell the credit union how many children are in need. With food provided by the West Alabama Food Bank, volunteers and credit union members get together about once a month and create three-pound packages for each student. These packs are discreetly placed in student’s bags on Friday.

It costs about $140 to feed each child for one school year, and with the growing amount of children Secret Meals aids, costs can get expensive. The program relies mostly on donations and fundraisers, such as their triathlon at Lake Lurleen held on May 21. Perhaps their most interesting method of fundraising is their connection with Susan Daria, a public relations professor at The University 
of Alabama.

“I have been working with Secret Meals since 2011,” Daria said. “I have one or two classes every semester ... I divide each class into four groups usually, and each group is required to concept, brand, develop and implement each fundraising and awareness campaign.”

From kickball tournaments to mock TED talks, students have come up with a variety of fundraisers to help out Secret Meals.

“The client fits really well what we want to do, teaching them not only how to be good public relations practitioners, but to use their powers for good,” Daria said. “To me, it makes my job a lot easier to tell students, ‘this is a job you get to do. It’s going to help people here who are in a real need.’ I’ve seen first-hand the way the students get so passionate about it, it’s different than your 
typical assignment.”

Elizabeth Plant, a graduate of the University who took the class last semester, was particularly creative with 
her group.

“When we were doing our research, we saw this article for a town in Arkansas, and they had done a Relay for Life fundraiser where it was like ‘we’re flushing out diabetes’... so we came up with the idea of flush out hunger,” Plant said. “We had five toilets and we completely decorated them ... they were bedazzled, covered in feathers, glittered and we also got yard signs donated by another company that gave information about what Secret Meals is and what our goal was.”

They placed the toilets in people’s yards, who then could pay $40 to get it removed to a friend’s yard, or 10 to just remove it. To Daria’s surprise, the campaign was 
wildly successful.

“It was supposed to be two weeks long, but it ended up being so successful that it went on for four weeks,” Plant said. “We raised a little over $1600.”

Plant, a Tuscaloosa resident, was glad to be able to give back to her community.

“The class ... did not only really bring to life things that were happening in my community like how many children were actually having to go the weekend without food, but also it was an incredible way for us to put everything we’ve learned previously to practice,” Plant said.”

Daria said she is glad to give her students such an impactful learning experience.

“You tend to think of hunger as happening some other place, somewhere else, to people who are not like you somehow,” Daria said. “For students to realize that it’s literally here, that it’s happening to kids that they could help if they just tried a little. It’s amazing to see what 
they do.”

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