Churches, outreach ministries expand food programs during recession

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches, outreach ministries expand food programs during recession

By Jenna De Marco | Sept. 18, 2009 {1077}

NOTE: This article is the first in a series on ways United Methodist ministries in the Florida Conference are helping individuals and families cope with the effects of the current economic downturn.

The economic recession of the past 18 months spurred investment losses, higher unemployment and millions of housing foreclosures, taking many people into shaky financial territory.

A food pantry volunteer at Christians Reaching Out to Society (C.R.O.S. Ministries) unpacks a box of donated rice in one of the agency’s food pantries. C.R.O.S. is an outreach ministry of the conference serving greater Palm Beach County. Agency leaders say food assistance requests have increased by about 100 percent in the past two years. Photo courtesy of C.R.O.S. Ministries. Photo #09-1296.

But across the Florida Conference, the slowdown has also bolstered participation in a spiritual mandate — feeding the ranks of physically hungry and needy people. Leaders and members of both larger groups, such as conference outreach ministries, and smaller churches say they are expanding the ways they are lending a hand to families and individuals in crisis.

“The economic downturn has definitely made many people more aware of how vulnerable they are,” said Melinda Trotti, director of Florida Conference Justice and Outreach Ministries. “Also, so many people know someone who has lost a job or house. … It changes the face of hunger and need and brings it home in a new way.”

Trotti said overall charitable giving in most areas has declined, but financial contributions to hunger reduction and feeding ministries have increased.

The relatively small membership at Kathleen United Methodist Church has not prevented the congregation from consistently supporting its Sowell Food Bank ministry, said Thomas Hanna, youth pastor at the church. Although the church averages about 80 to 100 people in Sunday worship, Hanna said the food bank assists about 200 families each month.

“We are not only meeting the physical needs of the people here in the community, we are also meeting spiritual needs of the people here in the congregation who are serving through this ministry,” he said.

The food bank began with a donation from a late parishioner, Maxine Sowell, who left a trust fund specifically for a food ministry when she died last year. After launching the ministry, church members quickly discovered the demand for the service far outweighed their expectations of the need.

“One of the difficulties was how big it got,” Hanna said. Another was the growing service area needing assistance.

Demand for food assistance rises

The Kathleen community is not alone in seeing mounting needs. The public’s need for emergency food assistance increased 30 percent in 2008 based on local impact surveys, according to Feeding America, a national organization that provides food to more than 200 food banks. In Florida, five of the organization’s seven locations reported increases in the range of 24 percent to 40 percent.

Statistics also show 75,691 more children in Florida’s public schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunches during 2008-09 than in 2007-08, a 6 percent increase, according to Ebony Yarbrough, child nutrition coordinator for Florida Impact, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit working to reduce hunger and poverty since 1979.

In the Kathleen area, requests for assistance come from people across a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, Hanna said.

Boxes of food provided by the Sowell Food Bank include a variety of staples for about 200 families each month. Photo courtesy of Kathleen United Methodist Church. Photo #09-1297.

“We would have such diversity from the people that would want or need some assistance — some people who were very poor and destitute, and we also had relatively successful business people,” Hanna said.

To meet the demand as effectively as possible, the food pantry committee regrouped during the summer, halting distribution for a few months to re-evaluate its strategy. Members decided to tentatively set a five-mile radius around the church, Hanna said, as the area “where we believe God has positioned us and entrusted us to.” Distribution resumed in September.

The committee also informed area school principals that it would begin accepting recommendations of families from the schools needing help.

Each month, pre-registered families or individuals can receive one large box of food during an assigned week. The box typically includes cereal, pasta, sauce, vegetables, soups, canned and frozen meats, beans and rice. Volunteers pick up the goods from area food bank suppliers, sort and divide it, and then distribute it. Hanna said the work involved with this ministry has been a “rallying point” for the people of the church.

The Rev. Ron DeGenaro agrees the desire to help can be very motivating. DeGenaro is pastor at St. John United Methodist Church in Sebring, where he says some members personally recall family hardship during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The United Methodist Men’s group at the church decided to help people who are unemployed by offering a “Feed My Sheep” luncheon in June. Although they prepared for 40 people, only a handful showed up.

“What was going through my mind as the pastor was that I was disappointed that it was not as successful as our folks would have liked, but I was extremely proud of our folks and their compassion and what they wanted to do,” DeGenaro said.

The lack of response to the luncheon turned out to be a benefit for New Testament Mission, a local food bank. Church volunteers donated the leftover sandwiches to the mission on a day when it did not have a meal plan already in place. The mission immediately served the sandwiches and chips to about 40 people. There have been other days, DeGenaro said, when the church’s good timing has provided the food bank with the staples it needed to complete its prepared meals.

Despite the small turnout at the luncheon, DeGenaro says members are not discouraged from undertaking future efforts. Plans include continuing to work through established food banks and agencies in Sebring to make a difference.

“We see our place as being Christ’s presence here in this community and … ‘feed my sheep’ is what you try to do,’ ” DeGenaro said.

Homeless prevention expands to ‘middle ranks’

Whether individuals or families feel the effects of a recession depends partly on their living conditions before the downturn, says the Rev. Troy Ray, executive director of Halifax Urban Ministries (HUM) in Daytona Beach, an outreach ministry of the conference.

Halifax Urban Ministries volunteer Larry Freeman serves a Feed-A-Family food package to a guest. Photo courtesy of Halifax Urban Ministries. Photo #09-1298.

Those who were already homeless likely have not noticed much difference, he said, although people who previously were living in “the fragility of poverty” may be feeling the impact of homelessness now. Ray says the fastest growing demographic of people seeking assistance is the group needing “homeless prevention” services in order to meet their other financial obligations, and that’s where majority of HUM resources go.

“We’ve seen many, many more come into those ranks — professionals, pharmacists, educators — we’re seeing a lot of people enter that area of needs,” Ray said.

HUM’s homeless prevention services include the “Feed-a-Family” food package, which includes five meals for a family of four, available once a month. Ray estimates nearly 1,400 families participate.

“When we can help someone with their food and with their baby needs and with prescriptions and with rent and utilities, then that’s putting money in their pocket to stay in their homes,” Ray said.

Meanwhile, HUM has stepped up its participation in the “Bridge of Hope” hot meal program for the 90 residents living in the Support Teamwork Achieves Results (STAR) Center for transitional housing in Daytona Beach. HUM now provides three meals a day, seven days a week for those residents, as well as one meal each day for 300 non-sheltered individuals. In total, HUM serves or distributes an estimated 350 tons of food each year, Ray said. Approximately 75-100 tons of comes from donated goods.

Lars Gilberts said requests for food assistance have increased by an average of 200 percent in the past year at South Florida Urban Ministries’ (SFLUM), an outreach ministry of the conference and its South East District serving the Miami-Dade County area. Gilberts is director of the ministry’s Center for Financial Stability.

That higher need has yet to recede, he said, but the resources needed to meet the demand are beginning to increase.

“We have been incredibly blessed by a number of programs and grants coming through, allowing us to serve the communities better than we ever have,” Gilberts said.

Three key areas of assistance expanded recently. The ministry’s participation with the Emergency Food and Shelter national program continues, Gilberts said, but with more grant money available. SFLUM’s regular grant increased from $13,000 to $20,000; the outreach also received an additional $48,000 grant from the federal stimulus program.

Volunteers from the community and area churches help renovate the former Lakeview United Methodist Church building as offices for South Florida Urban Ministries. Photo #09-1299.

SFLUM also plans to serve as a partner for the new Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program assists at-risk families and individuals in stabilizing their housing situations. Another SFLUM service — the Center for Financial Stability — will launch in the fall. A national pilot program through United Way, the center will help promote long-term financial stability for its clients through various techniques. SFLUM is in the process of renovating an old building, previously Lakeview United Methodist Church, for the financial ministry’s offices, Gilberts said.

Christians Reaching Out to Society (C.R.O.S. Ministries) is also experiencing a “huge” increase in food assistance requests in the range of about 100 percent in the past two years, said the Rev. Pam Cahoon, the ministry’s executive director.

C.R.O.S. is an outreach ministry of the conference serving greater Palm Beach County. Cahooon said many of its recipients have indicated they never expected they’d need to use a food pantry and are “angry and humiliated” to be in that situation.

To accommodate the growing need, C.R.O.S. now provides qualifying families with up to seven days of emergency food instead of four or five. The agency has also become an Automated Community Connection to Economic Self-Sufficiency (ACCESS) site for those needing to apply for public assistance with the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Long-term hunger reduction efforts needed

Churches and ministries interested in addressing the ongoing needs of hungry families and individuals have several options available to them, Trotti says. One is to assist with the Summer Food Service Program through Florida Impact. With an estimated 17 percent of eligible students participating this summer, there is room for growth, Yarbrough said. Qualifying students are those who meet the requirement for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year.

“This is a great way for churches to help leverage federal dollars that are available for such feeding,” Trotti said. “The lunches can come to the church pre-packaged, and the church provides the space and some programming for the children (or) youth.”

Members of a church youth group break down bags of rice they have collected for the “rice project” sponsored by C.R.O.S. Ministries. Photo #09-1300.

Both Trotti and Cahoon say churches do not have to launch their own feeding ministries in order to help, however. Leaders can contact a local outreach agency and assist with ministries already in place. Another important step is speaking up about the plight of hungry children through the conference’s Florida Advocacy Days, Trotti said. The advocacy effort takes place annually at the state capitol in Tallahassee in conjunction with Children’s Week and the spring legislative session.

“Florida Advocacy Days is one way for people to learn about issues that affect families in poverty and speak to their legislators from a faith perspective,” Trotti said. “This is also an effective ministry, but not one that church members typically think of when they want to help hungry people.”

“Everybody can be a voice for the voiceless,” says Nancy Dougherty, coordinator of the 2009 Advocacy Days.

Dougherty also recommends that churches work together, forming ministry partnerships. That strategy helped the new Joining Hands Community Mission, which she directs, emerge from the closure of Community United Methodist Church in Holiday as an outreach ministry of a cooperative of the area’s United Methodist churches. The mission serves needy people of the Holiday community in the Gulf Central District.

“We could not be able to do the larger things we are doing without that connection,” Dougherty said.

Information about assisting with the Summer Food Service Program through Florida Impact is available at Information about childhood hunger issues is available at

Related stories:

Church-run courses help families overcome financial stress

Closed church reopens as mission to help families, end homelessness

Churches fight hunger with summer meal program

Church turns closure into creative social outreach

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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