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The annual Bags of Hope holiday food drive for low-income families this year won’t look anything like it did in this 2019 photo taken at the Dollar General warehouse.

JANESVILLE

A Janesville tradition of giving won’t be the same this year. Sigh.

Yes, COVID-19 strikes again.

The Bags of Hope food drive, which normally recruits dozens of people to bag groceries for the needy on a Saturday morning, is canceling that mass gathering this year.

Instead, 365 families will be getting $100 gift cards, said Denise Jensen, who coordinates the effort for the School District of Janesville with the help of businesses and the city of Janesville.

The cards will be distributed starting Monday, Dec. 14, to parents at district schools, Jensen said.

Organizers thought they would be able to raise only about $25,000 instead of the usual $40,000 raised in previous years.

But companies that supported the drive in past years with mostly in-kind donations stepped up, and $40,000 in cash and gift cards was raised, Jensen said.

Those partners are Seneca, Festival Foods, Dollar General and Kwik Trip.

Two-thirds of the district’s 9,100 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in the federal school lunch program, a number that has risen lately. But this food drive is geared toward the neediest, a fraction of those considered low-income under federal guidelines, Jensen said.

The food drive also covers about 50 low-income senior citizens, as in the past. In their case, Festival Foods will deliver food to a common room at an apartment complex, where residents can pick up what they need, Jensen said.

Plans are to have the food drive back to normal at this time in 2021, if all goes well with the COVID-19 situation, Jensen said.

The food drive originated in the 1980s with the United Auto Workers at the General Motors Plant taking up a collection for the needy. Over the years, the distribution grew, and an assembly-line-style packing and delivering of grocery bags became an annual time of joy for those who could donate their time.

The school district picked up the torch in 2009, after the plant shut down and the effort lost its major source of funding.

The biggest loss this year is among those who won’t be able to feel the holiday spirit of giving that many have come to enjoy during that Saturday morning volunteer work, Jensen said.

Money is still being collected, by the way. It will be used for a new effort, a similar gift-card distribution in March, just before spring break, which is another time in the year when children don’t benefit from school lunches.

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