Beyond a bag of groceries
By Sherry Blackman | Presbyterians Today
Hunger is at the heart of being human. People hunger for food, for love, for belonging and for Christ himself. Feeding the hunger of humanity is why the church exists. Presbyterian churches around the country are working to creatively nourish and sustain those who struggle with food insecurity, malnourishment and poverty.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2015, 42.2 million people faced hunger in the United States. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief and food rescue organization, reports that 1 in 7 Americans are struggling with hunger. And hunger affects all ages: 13.1 million children live in food-insecure homes, meaning they are often forced to skip meals or eat less at meals. Their parents or guardians buy cheap, non-nutritious food, or feed their children but not themselves. In 2014, 5.4 million adults over age 60 were food-insecure, about 9 percent of all seniors.
In response to the prevalence of hunger, local congregations are making an impact on the hunger in their communities by going beyond traditional food pantries and community meals. They are now establishing things like “blessing boxes” on church property and offering nutrition classes, often by partnering with other organizations.
The blessing box
In Bonham, Texas, a town with nearly 25 percent of its residents living in poverty (according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau), First Presbyterian Church’s mission committee decided to become part of the blessing box national movement. This grassroots movement has spread quickly through social media with organizations posting pictures of little outdoor boxes with signs that read “Take What You Need” and “Bring What You Can.” The blessing box offers free nonperishable food items, toiletries and other essentials for those in need, and is typically located on church property, available anytime anyone needs something.
“We had an ache to do something to help feed our community that is like a food desert. There aren’t a lot of food stores conveniently located,” said Cindy Godbey, mission committee chair.
She first saw a blessing box in the nearby city of McKinney and brought the idea to the church.
“It’s a way that people who are in need can maintain their dignity, as the items are free for the taking and they can come when they want,” Godbey said.
The blessing box is refilled several times a week, not just by members of the church, but also by those in the community. Items include toothbrushes, toilet paper, cans of tuna, boxes of macaroni and cheese and sometimes special-occasion items like Easter basket goodies.
Dedicated last year on Palm Sunday during the church’s annual community worship service, the box was placed outside the education building, where it can be easily accessed by those who want to donate and by those who are in need.
“One thing about the blessing box is that you have to let go of control of who takes from it and go prayerfully about the ministry,” said the Rev. Lisa Reece.
Godbey added that the church often finds thank you notes left in the blessing box from those who benefit from it.
Feeding God’s lambs, literally
The Presbyterian Church of the Palms in Sarasota, Florida, has found a creative way to stock its food pantry shelves by literally feeding God’s lambs.
The church feeds animals at the local Fruitville Grove Farm, and in exchange, the food pantry gets fresh produce from the farm, says Kathy Robinett, food ministry coordinator.
The church’s food pantry swaps about 200 to 300 pounds of day-old bread for about the same amount of fresh produce every week. The food pantry, open five days a week, serves about 80 clients a day, or about 400 weekly.
“Sarasota is known for its affluence, but it’s become a place of transiency due to its desirable climate and location. We have immigrants looking to relocate, a number of people passing through, and a fair share of homeless people,” Robinett said. “At times it’s overwhelming. Your heart breaks when you see parents unable to feed their kids. We are always re-evaluating how we can help, working with as many agencies as we can.”
Kim White, the owner of Fruitville Grove Farm, says this partnership is a win-win for all involved. Her animals — goats, cows, horses, peacocks and rabbits — are happy to get the treat. And, she adds, rather than wasting the bread, it gets used.
“The best part is knowing that I am doing my part to help those who are hungry by providing them fresh produce right from the farm, rather than processed food. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction doing it,” White said.
The Church of the Palms’ pastor, the Rev. Stephen McConnell, says that the 1,900-member church has historically had a heart for local mission.
“What we’ve witnessed is the transformative power our ministries have had on those who serve. It changes us because we stare into the face of poverty,” he said. “We hear people’s stories and our view changes of the nature of human need and what the causes of poverty are. Our ministry reflects Christ, who ministered to one person at a time.”
Millwood Community Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington, has taken to heart the guiding principle of the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote: “Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile.”
The Rev. Craig Goodwin says that one of the most important things the church has learned is the importance of working alongside other social agencies and organizations to help the community at large.
“We’ve caught a bigger vision of what God has called us to do, and not just focusing on what we’re doing,” he said. “The church has a greater sense of being relational, and not working in isolation. We’ve had greater hints of God’s kingdom.”
The church has partnered with local food banks and schools to help feed those who have come to Spokane, which is a sanctuary city.
Goodwin says the passion and work for feeding the hungry have evolved through the years. Ten years ago, the church started a farmers market in cooperation with local farmers and artisans. The market runs from May through September in the church’s parking lot.
The farmers market sparked an interest in providing healthy food through establishing community gardens, and the church partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank, distributing food on the second Friday of every month through the Millwood Mobile Food Bank.
A truck is filled with produce and fresh foods, and 25 community volunteers staff the long line of 10 tables used for distribution. The food is for low-income families and others in need of food assistance. To date, more than 550,000 pounds of food have been distributed through the Millwood Mobile Food Bank.
“Relational connections, a sense of shared commitment to meet the needs of the people — there’s something very spiritual about that. It gives expression to faith in a meaningful way,” Goodwin said. “Something about food touches our lives, as well as our spiritual lives. Our spiritual life is wrapped up in this.”
In addition, the church has established a kitchen ministry with a goal of empowering people with the skills to prepare inexpensive, healthy meals with foods that are readily available in the region.
The church’s mission statement reads: “In this work we seek to gather people into meaningful relationships around food, remembering the central role that meals and sharing a table played in Jesus’ ministry.”
The church offers cooking classes at the Crawford Community Kitchen in the Millwood Community Center next to the church.
Beth Aaron teaches these cooking classes to local residents, some of whom are refugees.
With a $5,000 Presbyterian Hunger Program grant and support of the local presbytery, the kitchen ministry joined with Second Harvest as a Spokane satellite kitchen for Cooking Matters, a nutrition education program.
“This is a well-organized and easy-to-implement program,” Aaron said. “There are four cooking lessons offered on Wednesday evenings that are very basic. We teach our clients to eat a variety of colors every day, and to choose whole grains whenever possible. A nutritional lesson is a part of the cooking lessons.”
Students spend about 20 minutes in the classroom, and then they move to the kitchen for a one-hour cooking class. Some of the food is prepped prior to cooking and set up around two 8-foot stainless steel tables for up to 10 students. Some of the students are teams of two, a parent and child learning together.
The classes are open to all in the community at no cost. Aaron says that some people attend just to have a meal to take home to their families.
The cost of the food is covered by the grant. Millwood offered five series of the classes in 2017, up from two series in 2016.
Why does Aaron, a retired registered nurse, do what she does?
“I believe people have gifts and I’ve never been one to lead a group. I’ve always been more of a ‘participator’ — behind-the-scenes person. The kitchen ministry started with conversations at an after-school program we have here. When mothers picked up their children I’d often hear, ‘I don’t want to go home and cook after working all day.’ For me, this is a way to fill a gap; a way for me to realize my gift, to make an impact without preaching,” she said.
And in feeding the hungry, another hunger is met — the hunger to be part of a community and a family.
“I tell every volunteer who helps to feed the hungry to think about who do you love the most in your life? Who do you love more than anything? Whoever that is, put their face on the person who is coming through the door. We don’t know the path they are on, or how they got there. I tell them, ‘Just listen, give comfort,’ ” Aaron said.
Sherry Blackman is the pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania.
You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.