Learnshop Uses Coupons to Help Stretch Food Dollars

By Lynn Stearns

Louise and Kevin Newcomer often repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes as they teach people how to stretch food money.

But the Newcomers, founders of Learnshop, think the program they began in 1991 is closer to the principle, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day - teach a man to fish, feed him for life."

As a single mother on welfare for two years, Louise learned firsthand about the value of shopping with vendor coupons. "I saw hungry people in a new way and vowed to make a difference as soon as I could," she says.

"Poverty knows no boundaries," adds Kevin. "It's not like people take a vote and decide living economically challenged will teach their children a lesson or bring the family closer."

A graduate of the University of Maryland, Kevin worked as a supermarket cashier for 12 years before earning a Master of Divinity degree from Howard University in Washington, D. C.

The Newcomers met at an anti-hunger meeting and were married six years ago. Believing they could share their knowledge and experience, Louise and Kevin formed Learnshop. They help shoppers become wise consumers by taking advantage of coupons, rebates, and store specials. They also teach shoppers of the danger of the "I only use a particular brand" attitude.

"In the early days," Kevin smiles, "We were getting coupons out of our neighborhood recycling bins to pass out." Now, they appeal to members of organizations, businesses and congregations to save coupon booklets from inserts in Sunday newspapers.

They also quickly learned to request that a church bulletin or another identifying note be placed on the top of the pile of inserts donated. The identification helps the Newcomers return personal items contributors accidentally scoop up with their coupons. They have discovered such things as family photos and remote controls in stacks of coupons.

Students attend classes at Learnshop with hope that the strategies will help them stretch their grocery money to the end of the month.

To help explain the program, the organization has created a video. "We'd like to see waiting rooms turned into classrooms," says Kevin. "Empowering an individual to feed his family by being a skillful shopper gives an immeasurable boost to his self esteem."

They collect coupons as often as once a week and take them to several sites, including a nearby middle school. After reading a newspaper article about Learnshop, making a few phone calls, and discussing the project with her students, Ms. Marilyn Schuman, a sixth-grade teacher and her students also became involved in the ministry.

"And student response has kept it going strong," Schuman added. During lunch, students separate booklets by stacking like sheets, face up, so that several sheets of coupons can be cut at once. Kevin picks up the pages and takes them to be cut.

To involve more people and to spread the work around, two years ago, Newcomer spoke to a group at Asbury Methodist Village, a retirement community in Gaithersburg, Md.

"We were so impressed with the education that goes along with the program," said Betty Lewis of Asbury. "We told him we thought we might be able to help." Kevin delivered a box of coupons and a weekly "Coupon Clipping Conversation Club" was born. Club members clip coupons and 50-60 of the same coupon with the same expiration date are bundled together.

Boxes of coupons that are valid for the month, are then placed in social service, welfare, and W.I.C. (Women, Infants, Children) offices and clinics. Pet food coupons are donated to the Humane Society. Expired coupons are sent to American military bases where coupons may be used six months beyond the expiration date.

"In distributing to the shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens, we are ministering to those who often run out of food before they can feed all of the people who come to them for help," Kevin says.

Louise once had coupons for 55 cents off on a box of instant rice. When the store had them on sale for 50 cents, she traded 632 coupons for 632 boxes of rice.

Another time, the manufacturer of a new cereal issued coupons cutting $1.60 off its $3.18 retail price. When a grocery store put the cereal on sale for half-price, at $1.59, she got 700 boxes, worth $2,226 without paying a cent.

The Newcomers call ahead to let a store manager know when they're coming in with a large order. They have obtained and distributed 80 boxes of crackers, nine cases of lotion, 750 boxes of macaroni and cheese, 687 toothbrushes, and many other products that they paid for with coupons, rebates and shopping skill.

From collectors and cutters, to those who redeem the coupons, a banner in the hall near Schuman's classroom is a reminder of a common thread running through those involved in Learnshop. Bold letters across the banner spell out "Believe In Yourself."

Learnshop Video Available

To receive the 30-minute training video send a check for $14.95, made out to Learnshop. For more information, send a self-addressed, stamped #10 envelope to the Newcomers, P.O. Box 1754, Wheaton, MD 20915.

Impact is a regular feature of Village Life about non-profit organizations that are helping change lives.

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