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Hunger Action Congregations run toward food security


Third Presbyterian Church in New York has long history of community engagement

By Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Third Presbyterian Church’s East Avenue Grocery Run raises funds for local hunger ministries. Photo provided

LOUISVILLE – Twenty-seven years of Saturdays, approximately 1,400 consecutive weekends of serving the “best meal in town,” is a pretty good track record of commitment. That’s how long Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, has been running its dining room ministry, a hot meal program that started in 1991 and serves approximately 80 people each week. But that’s not enough for this 1,200-member congregation in north central New York. Their emergency food program has been similarly active for more than 20 years, and another hunger initiative, the East Avenue Grocery Run, a mere child at 9 years old, might be the most impactful program of all three.

“We’ve been doing this a long time, and our folks are really passionate about it,” said Lynette Sparks, associate pastor for outreach and evangelism at Third Presbyterian. “When we started our dining room ministry 27 years ago, literally no one came that first Saturday. And yet our volunteers kept at it and figured out how to get the word out. Now it’s going strong and we’re looking at how to expand it over the next 25 years. We take pride in it, and some of our guests say it’s the best meal in town.”

Third Presbyterian has been a Presbyterian Hunger Program Certified Hunger Action Congregation since 2017, but has been addressing hunger and food security issues in its community for more than two decades. Ten volunteer teams rotate their time to serve the dining room ministry’s Saturday meals. Some of the volunteers are Third Presbyterian members, but many of the dedicated helpers come from the larger community, including other faith and non-faith communities in Rochester.

Their emergency food program also had humble beginnings more than 20 years ago; it started as just handing out extra things that were available in the church office before it eventually transformed into a bona fide emergency food cupboard.

“Our food cupboard is open two mornings each week and we average about 25 families each day, but it’s higher toward the end of the month,” said Sparks. “Our church went through an extensive renovation about 10 years ago; creating a dedicated space for the food cupboard and renovating the commercial-grade kitchen for the dining room ministry was a big focus of that renovation.”

For all of its hunger ministry work over the past two decades, it’s Third Presbyterian’s youngest initiative that might have the biggest community impact. The East Avenue Grocery Run, started by two members who had a passion for running, will hold its ninth annual 5K race early next month. The race has been a hit from the start. More than 800 showed up for the inaugural East Avenue Grocery Run and more than 1,200 runners and walkers ranging from ages 18 months to 80 years old are expected to participate in the 2018 race. More than 150 volunteers help plan and execute it, and corporate sponsors cover the cost of implementing the race day events and infrastructure. That allows all of the registration fees and extra funds that participants raise to go directly to hunger programs throughout Rochester. Sparks estimates the previous eight East Avenue Grocery Runs have generated more than $230,000 for food programs across the city.

“This event not only covers and supports all of our direct food costs for our food programs, it also provides funding for up to 15 other food programs in the city and Foodlink, our area food bank,” said Sparks. “We don’t care what food program you run for — you can raise money for any food program you like. We have systemic challenges in Rochester, with high poverty levels, and food insecurity is huge. As much as we’re doing, we’re only scratching the surface.”

More than 100 Hunger Action Congregations were celebrated on World Food Day, Oct. 16, to help raise awareness and take action to end the root causes of hunger. Some HACs, like Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church in Wisconsin, Food Week of Action is a fulfillment of its daily mission. Others, like Covenant Presbyterian Church in Missouri, address the underlying systemic causes between hunger and poverty in the community.

Despite its long-running success at administering hunger ministry, Third Presbyterian is not resting on its laurels. They’re partnering with the Presbytery of Genesee Valley to develop a new mission site featuring an emergency food program and community garden by providing funding and leadership. They’re also being strategic about the future of their own ministry and thinking about how to grow their relationship with guests and grow into doing ministry side-by-side.

“Congregations like Third Presbyterian are making the connection between hunger in their communities and systems that perpetuate hunger,” says Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for national hunger concerns in the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “And making connections between hunger and poverty, and the underlying systemic causes, is the purpose of the Food Week of Action.”

Sparks says that the Rochester community is engaged and eager to help, and that they see their volunteer numbers continue to increase over time.

“We have a study group and leadership team that has spent the past year doing an in-depth missional study asking, ‘What does it mean to deepen our ministry?’” said Sparks. “How can we find ways to partner with our guests, so we can continue to grow? We’re doing a lot of work looking at a range of services that goes from pure charity all the way to community development and asking ourselves what it means to provide better hospitality, more mutuality and see where we can partner elsewhere for the long term.”

The Presbyterian Hunger Program is able to share God’s love with our neighbors in need around the world because of gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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