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First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown in New York tackles food insecurity

Legacy now includes becoming a Hunger Action Congregation

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Because of the pandemic, First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown in Yorktown Heights, New York, changed the way it distributes food from its pantry. Volunteers now bag groceries and place them in recipients’ vehicles. (Photo courtesy of FPCY)

LOUISVILLE — First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown in Yorktown Heights, New York recently became a Hunger Action Congregation, capping off a long tradition of serving the community through a food pantry and other endeavors.

Churches qualify for certification as Hunger Action Congregations through the Presbyterian Hunger Program when they are active in these areas: hunger alleviation, development assistance, hunger education, lifestyle integrity, corporate and public policy witness, and worship.

“Although we’ve just been recently certified, this has been something the church has been very attuned with for a long time,” said Ellen Miles, the Hunger Action Congregation Team Lead for the church.

The crown jewel of FPCY’s hunger-action efforts is a twice-a-month food pantry that’s evolved over time to meet community needs. It has been around for more than 30 years and serves individuals and families living within about 10 miles of the church.

“FPCY’s ministry to tackle hunger started out in a very humble way, 15-25 bags of food twice a month to people who were hungry from a literal pantry closet in the church,” said the Rev. Chip Low, co-pastor and coach. “It was a simple and straightforward task. Then we began asking questions that moved this ministry from something transactional twice a month to what it means to engage in food justice ministry and how does that ministry ask deeper, more meaningful, more relational and transformational questions of us and the people we serve.”

The Rev. Chip Low is co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown. (Photo courtesy of FPCY)

Low continued, “This has happened over time as we listened to the lives of those who come to our pantry, explored the shortcomings of programs like SNAP (the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), gone on national and international mission trips that were less about building something and more about learning the impact of our lives on others, explored biblical texts, including the differences between Jesus’ compassionate response in the feeding of the 5,000 and the disciples’ response, and then asking, ‘What is all of this asking us to become as well as do?’”

FPCY attracts a large number of food recipients — 175-180 families each time the pantry opens or closer to 275 (per pantry opening) during the height of the pandemic — and makes sure that bags are given out with a full portion of friendliness and compassion.

“While we don’t see the same clients every time, there are some regulars and we have real relationships with them,” said Katharine Frase, co-leader of the food pantry. “Some of them have been coming long enough that we can ask about their kids or their dog … and I think that really is different. While we try to be efficient, the compassion is really important.”

She recalled an older gentleman who was eager to share a vintage photograph of himself along with some buddies and Marilyn Monroe. “What really tickled me is that we were the people he wanted to show that picture, which really speaks to relationship,” Frase said.

Most recipients come to the church to receive bags of food, which are loaded into their vehicle by volunteers for health and safety reasons during the pandemic. The church also takes bags of food to two senior complexes and is involved in local programs to feed the homeless.

“They’re broad-based efforts,” Miles said. “Lots of folks in the congregation are involved, but in terms of the actual coordination of these initiatives, it’s really a handful of people, which is just amazing. … It’s kind of a well-oiled machine.”

FPCY also has members serving on the town of Yorktown’s Food Security Task Force, and the church is searching for ways to make the community more aware of the factors that contribute to hunger and household financial crises.

First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown opens its pantry twice a month and draws many working families. (Photo courtesy of FPCY)

“Say you’ve got a family of four and both adults are working full-time but minimum wage; they can’t afford an apartment,” said Frase, co-chair of the task force. “The vast majority of my (pantry) clients are working. They just can’t feed their families.”

Some of the produce that’s distributed by FPCY’s pantry is grown at a community garden that adults and youths from church help to tend as part of an interfaith collaboration that also benefits other pantries in the area.

“This is our third summer right now that we’re in, being involved in the Garden of Hope,” said Stephanie Hare, the church’s director of youth ministries. “Our congregation really has taken it on as a project that we want to be involved in and do well.”

Some volunteers visit once or twice a week during the summer to help with things like weeding and harvesting. Others are more deeply involved, going every week to water the garden and check on things from spring to fall.

“I think people really see it as a physical manifestation of loving our neighbors,” said Hare, who noted that organic gardening techniques are used. “We want people to eat well, and we want people to be healthy. … We’re trying as best as possible to grow it in a way that’s healthy for both the consumer and healthy for the Earth.”

Working in the Garden of Hope is “a physical manifestation of loving our neighbors,” said Stephanie Hare, director of youth ministries for First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown. (Stock image by summa via Pixabay)

That’s also in line with being a GreenFaith Sanctuary and an Earth Care Congregation. “We love food, and we also have made this commitment to be as green a congregation as possible,” Hare said.

Being able to collaborate with others in the community also makes participating in the Garden of Hope worthwhile, she said.

“We love the community aspect of it, and the interfaith aspect of it — the fact that it’s not just us,” she said. “It’s all of these different community groups coming together and bringing their gifts and whatever they have to share in terms of their time and energy.”

That spirit of collaboration also comes through in the international and domestic mission trips that FPCY has been involved in the last few years.

The church primarily has “been working with a group called Bridges to Community for our international trips,” including three trips to the Dominican Republic, Hare said.

“They really work a lot on empowering local communities to bring resources together and make decisions together about what projects and things will benefit the community and then they bring in additional volunteers to kind of help move things along,” she said. “That’s been a really great experience for us.”

The Presbyterian Hunger Program is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. It is supported by your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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