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Presbyterian hunger ministries persevere despite pandemic

‘People are desperate to help’

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena, California, grows food for people in need. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterian churches across the country are stepping up to feed the hungry, using ingenuity and elbow grease to help their communities despite being thrown some curveballs by the coronavirus.

From converting their little book libraries to little food pantries to providing curbside service, Hunger Action Congregations (HACs) are feeding individuals and families as the virus closes schools and businesses and drives many people into unemployment.

“There’s a lot of people that are going to be significantly impacted by this (pandemic), and so any help that we can give to our neighbors, we should give to our neighbors, and our neighbors are everyone,” said Elizabeth Daley, chair of the Mission Committee of Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena, California.

Hunger Action Congregations are recognized and resourced by the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “Through One Great Hour of Sharing, PHP is able to network with and support these and other excellent congregational ministries,” PHP coordinator Rebecca Barnes said.

Second Blessings food pantry at First Presbyterian Church of Union, Missouri, has been experiencing increased demand for food in recent weeks as more and more employers have shed workers.

Second Blessings food pantry at First Presbyterian Church of Union, Missouri, has seen an increased demand for food during the coronavirus pandemic. (Contributed photo)

“We’ve got a lot of people filling out applications to be able to get food,” said Becki Gillihan, president of Second Blessings. Along with waitresses from closed restaurants, “we’ve had mechanics because they’ve had to lay them off because nobody is going. … We’ve had casino workers because the casinos around here let everybody go. A lot of different jobs” are affected, she said.

As Second Blessings and other food ministries from California to New Jersey strive to help people, they also are changing their methods when necessary to fit the times.

Large gatherings are no longer appropriate as the country desperately tries to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Grocery stock isn’t as plentiful as it once was, partly due to panic buying and, in some cases, restrictions being imposed by stores.

“We have seen many food pantries in New York City close and disruptions in supply chains is part of the reason,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, a PHP associate for National Hunger Concerns. “Various things in the food system will contribute and compound this problem, including the tightened U.S.-Mexico border and a predicted shortage of farm workers.”

On a recent grocery trip in California, Daley couldn’t completely fulfill a request by a partner organization because of limitations on grocery shoppers.

The partner “had asked for eight loaves of bread, but they would only let me buy two loaves,” she said. “Luckily, I had my daughter with me, so I was like, ‘Well, she’s going to buy two loaves too,’ so we got four.”

Another challenge for food ministries is social distancing, the now all-too-familiar term for trying to stay several feet from the next person to keep from catching the coronavirus.

In Union, people who used to visit Second Blessings could come indoors to shop for food. For the last three weeks, the food has been distributed outside, with steps being taken to ensure that volunteers remain a safe distance from families.

“We have people stay in their car,” Gillihan said. “One of our volunteers goes outside and stands at a certain point and then he directs them to stand on the sidewalk and we have it mapped out for them to be a certain distance away from each other.”

Eventually, after the person shows their ID at a church window, opened just slightly, the food is wheeled out to the end of a ramp. Then, from a safe distance, the person is directed to pick up their food, she said.

Afterward, “we bring the cart back in, we wipe it down and we do it all over again,” she said.

Despite the challenge of doing food distribution that way, it’s “important that as long as we can, we hang in there,” Gillihan said. “We love doing what we’re doing, and it’s actually been uplifting because we’ve even had the city of Union contacting all of the different stores to try to collect food for us because the other local pantry closed. We’re the only one in this area. It’s kind of nice seeing everybody rally.”

At the First Presbyterian Church of Cranbury, New Jersey, food distribution at Skeet’s Pantry used to be a social occasion.

“Normally, when we have our food pantry once a month, it’s a very big production,” said Carol Kientz, a co-coordinator. “The families all come and gather and we have at least 30 or 40 of them there at a time and they socialize, we give them coffee and coffee cake, and we have more than just bags of groceries, we have all kinds of greens, vegetables, fresh fruits, bread, bagels, (and) bags of all kinds of things for them on several tables.”

Because of the pandemic, the pantry now has drive-through pickup, helping local families as well as some from surrounding communities.

During a recent distribution, “I checked with each of the folks in the car to see who was there,” Kientz said. “Often, it was more than one family that was coming in the car. We brought their bags to them and we served 50 families that way last Friday.”

Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena, California, has turned its little library into a food pantry. (Contributed photo)

In South Pasadena, Calvary Presbyterian Church is helping people in multiple ways. In addition to buying food for partner groups or agencies or donating money to them, the church has converted a little library, normally used to exchange books with the community, into a little pantry filled with nonperishables that people take home. The church also has planted lettuce that people can use in their salads.

Hunger Action Congregations “are faithfully carrying out vital roles in their communities and are doing amazing work to meet local needs,” Kang Bartlett said.

In Michigan, the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, which also is known as Everybody’s Church, has started an emergency food bank to help make up for schools not being in session.

They’ve teamed up with First Presbyterian Church of Pontiac, which is in an area where many children would normally qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, to provide families with a shopping bag or two of food. The Birmingham church stuffs the bags with soup, pasta, peanut butter, cereal and other items and the bags are distributed by the Pontiac church.

The churches are not only benefitting the hungry but people who are donating to the effort, said Rev. Bethany Peerbolte, associate pastor for youth and mission at the Birmingham church.

“People are desperate to help,” she said. “They’re desperate to not feel helpless.”

Efforts like these “help them spiritually feel like they’re connected, that they’re able to do something and that God is using them to bless the world.”

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to support the Presbyterian Hunger Program in its work to alleviate hunger and eliminate its root causes.

To listen to how other aspects of PHP and OGHS programs are responding to COVID-19 and how to support the Offering in this time, please view this webinar.

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