COLFAX — Kids and dirt are a natural combination. Folks at Immanuel Lutheran Church of Colfax might say the same about kids and service.
Church members started the Tater Tot Project last year to teach children about serving others by helping them plant and harvest potatoes to distribute to area food pantries. Generations of families, from seniors to toddlers, gathered Sept. 11 at a farm in Colfax for the project's second harvest. Members of Trinity Lutheran Church of Fairbury also were there to lend a hand digging up, cleaning and sorting potatoes.
Gary Buchs, who helped pioneer the project last year, suspected the children were enjoying more than just playing in the dirt. "They get that, hey, this is going to someone who doesn’t have that much."
Parker Harms, 11, of Fairbury, seemed to agree. “I don’t get down in the dirt very often," he said. "That’s what’s fun. It makes me feel good. I’ve done something good for someone who can’t afford it.”
About 20 youth, ages 2 to 12, were present at the harvest.
"They’re smiling from ear to ear planting, and the same way harvesting," said Immanuel member Harlan Brucker, who donated a portion of his farm to the project for planting. "You see in their faces that they’re having a good time and they’re helping someone for a worthy cause."
Brucker estimated volunteers collected around one ton of potatoes over the course of the 90-minute harvest, a number he will be able to finalize once the potatoes are distributed to food pantries across Illinois.
“It’s really nice to get to feed people." said Annalyn Harper, 11, of Colfax. "We know we get our own food every night. I love working to help people.”
The two farmers hoped the project would help children develop a "servant’s heart."
"It's about serving without expectation and judging, and not telling people what to do or how to live their lives, but asking, how can I help?" Buchs explained.
Buchs said Immanuel Lutheran has a high youth population for “being out in the middle of nowhere.”
“We’re very fortunate at our church, that it’s been a thriving rural church community,” he said. While other rural churches have experienced a drop in membership because of families moving away and members dying, Immanuel’s numbers have been increasing.
Buchs believes the church's mission work helped attract families who want to be involved in the community. With the increased number of children in the congregation, Buchs wanted a way to physically involve children in the church’s mission.
“It came to me one day driving: when young people give to a church, it’s usually mom, dad, whoever, gives them a dollar and says put it in the donation plate,” he said. “And that’s important to learn to do, but they have no real sweat equity involved.”
Many of the children at Immanuel are too young take mission trips, but Buchs wanted to set a foundation of service for children to build upon as they grow older.
That idea brought Buchs to potatoes, an easy-to-grow, versatile food that could directly help local families.
"You can cook them multiple ways, and they will keep several months," he explained. "Every pound of potatoes is a meal for someone."
The potatoes harvested from this year's project will go to food pantries in Colfax, Bloomington, Ridgeview and Fairbury.
A portion of the harvest also will go to Our Lady of the Angel Mission in Chicago.
Sister Stephanie, who helps manage the mission’s community outreach programs, emphasized the importance of fresh food to their mission. “The USDA classifies certain areas, rural and urban, as food deserts, an area where residents don’t have access to fresh food. We live in one of those in Chicago.” Most residents near the mission don’t own cars and rely on public transportation; combined with a lack of area grocery stores with fresh produce, and the inability to grow food locally, it can be tough to find nutritious meals.
Buchs said there are misconceptions about people who visit food pantries. "A lot of these people are the working poor, single family, maybe grandparents raising grandchildren, and these pantries help really stretch their budget," he said, noting money that would normally be used for food could go toward utilities or gas.
There are also the intangible benefits people receive when they visit a food pantry.
"One of the things we saw and heard from people when we started doing outside mission (work) was how much hope they felt when people would come and donate," said Buchs. "The expectation most people have is no one is going to help me unless they’re getting something back. It’s pretty hard for people to feel loved when they’re cold, wet and hungry, especially when they’re hungry."
While government programs are in place to help those in need of food, receiving help from the community has more value, Buchs said. "There’s more than a check coming in the mail. It’s that social interaction, building that social fabric. You don’t get that from a piece of paper. You get that from the handshake, the hug, the prayer. It’s breaking that social barrier down that people can feel connected, because that’s a lot of what we’re battling in the world."
Buchs admitted the project was based less on organization and planning to ensure a successful harvest. Instead, the congregation relied on faith that people would contribute what they could to the project, from seed potatoes and supplies to volunteering at planting and harvest.
"Whatever needs doing, someone steps in and does it," said Brucker of his church and its tight-knit community.
Bob Cumpston, a volunteer at the Ridgeview Food Pantry, had a similar notion. "There’s a lot to be said about small towns," he said. "If there’s a need, people will help.”
People don't have to join a large group to make an impact. "Anyone who has a garden can contact a food pantry in their community, and they’ll usually take fresh things," said Buchs. "If you grow a garden, plant a row for the pantry. It can be very individual."
Buchs noted contacting the pantry helps them coordinate with other area pantries to have the right type and amount of food needed, but any donation can help.
"We don’t expect to change the world," said Buchs, "but if it changes somebody’s life for one meal or one day for the better, I think that’s all you can ask."