From Trinity Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, Our Newest Hunger Action Congregation
By Jesse Schlunegger
Out of the Box Ministries is our church food pantry program. Our motto is “Feed people whenever possible.” We have a funds-matching grant from the Emergency Food and Shelter Program through the federal government, which allows us to purchase food from our local Yolo County Food Bank. Members of our congregation and community contribute funds to our program. Annually, we apply for our grant, and are awarded a grant equal to the funds we have raised, thus doubling our available funds. We then use that money throughout the year to responsibly purchase food from our local Yolo Food Bank. We make purchases 2-3 times per month. Volunteers with large vehicles pick up the purchased food and deliver it to our church. The food usually arrives in large cardboard cases.
We have a funds-matching grant from the Emergency Food and Shelter Program through the federal government, which allows us to purchase food from our local Yolo County Food Bank.
Once per month on a Sunday, we gather volunteers from our church and local community to break apart the cases of food items (take them “out of the box”) and distribute them among individual grocery bags. Taking over the fellowship hall in our church, we create an assembly line, piled high with cases of cereal, peanut butter, macaroni & cheese, canned goods, and snacks. We pray over the food, the volunteers, and the clients. Then we pack the bags! Each volunteer in the assembly line takes a grocery bag and fills it with one of each item from the tables. We include a flier in English and Spanish that shares an encouraging Bible verse and lists other community services, free meals, and food pantries in our city.
Later that week, volunteers return on the Third Thursday of the month to distribute the bags to our clients. Our shoppers make one more trip to the food bank for perishables such as bread, produce, and sometimes dairy items. We again open our fellowship hall to our neighbors in need. Each family who comes is invited to take a bag of groceries, as well as a bag of perishables. We ask basic demographic information, which we report for our grant funding, but we never question a family’s need. Everyone who shows up gets food. We also invite our clients to enjoy a cup of coffee and cookies or snacks. A member of our local community has taken it upon herself to collect and distribute clothes, so our clients also get to look through the clothing items to see if there’s anything they need. On occasion, provide a bag to people who “walk-up” to the church during office hours or on Sunday mornings. We also will put together emergency bags when we receive referrals.
In addition to the distribution from our church, we make deliveries. For many years, we took food bags to a local trailer park where folks were living on very little income. Currently, we deliver food bags and surplus produce to residents at Margaret McDowell Manor, an apartment community for elderly people with low income. We also coordinate with social workers at the Head Start Program at Alyce Norman Family Life Center, and the Collings Teen Center. These partner agencies, through their relationships with local families, are able to identify those who would benefit from one of our food bags.
Out of the Box Ministries is truly a grass-roots program. A member of our congregation once approached our pastor and said, “I know how to write grants, and I know there is money out there to feed needy people. Can we do that here?” With our pastor’s encouragement, the food pantry was born. Though our motto is all about feeding people, we quickly developed a second purpose: engage the community. We learned right away that people really want to help. All people, old, young, strong, weak, citizen and immigrant, want to be involved in feeding hungry people. Over the years, we have developed habits that focus less on efficiency of time, and more on giving everyone opportunity. That might mean we find a sit-down job for someone who can’t stand for long. That might mean we let kids work the assembly line, knowing that it will take longer and be messier, but that they will learn the importance of serving.
This commitment to community involvement has led to a number of rewarding partnerships in our city. Several of our local schools now have annual food drives, when students take home a paper grocery bag and work with their families to fill that bag with non-perishable items. Out of the Box volunteers then pick up those donations, and sort them on our packing day. We encourage the students to come and see where their donations go, and to return on distribution night to meet our clients. All high school students in our city are required to complete community service hours each quarter, so we have enjoyed giving them opportunity to serve others. We have also established a relationship with our local Scouting community, and often have a troop of Boy or Girl Scouts arrive to volunteer. We have a tradition we call “Cookie-palooza,” when we bake nearly 2,000 Christmas cookies each year, so that we can place a variety plate of a dozen homemade cookies in each December food bag. We also team up with our local Children’s Alliance and Family Resource Center each year in August. They provide needy families with donated backpacks filled with school supplies, and we add a bag of back-to-school groceries.
God has used Out of the Box to bring our community together in amazing ways. Over more than ten years, we have watched children grow up serving their community, and come to know so many generous people in our neighborhood. We look forward to seeing what our community will accomplish in the years to come.
What a great outcome with humble beginnings. It goes to illustrate when you put your palm out to the church members they will join in the service of helping and giving. My church participates on a POP-UP Food distribution with other churches in our area since this pandemic began.
I belong to a small church who does something similar. How have you dealt with Covid safety during your program?
Tanya, Good to hear you all are responding and small churches are some of the mightiest ones! Here are some compiled approaches for dealing with safety for feeding programs.
Tips for Responding to Hunger in a Pandemic
Hi, yes, we at Out of the Box have changed our distribution practices during the pandemic. We currently prepare our food bags with a small crew of five or so volunteers, instead of the large volunteer groups we have welcomed in the past. On distribution nights, we have moved the operation outside, and no longer offer a refreshment table. We long for the days when we can fling our doors wide again for volunteers and clients. In the meantime, our local schools are organizing drive-up food drives, and we will continue to follow all of our county health guidelines.