First Wauchula fights hunger in a poor county

First Wauchula volunteers organize items for the food pantry.


Wauchula First is a 100-member church in a small town and poor county with lots of hungry mouths to feed. For the past 10 years, it has been doing just that, constantly expanding efforts with the support of long-time volunteers, a dedicated pastor and even 17 cases of pistachios.

Rev. Danielle Upton has been the pastor for five years. Mardi Sumner and her husband, Kevin, are the dreamers who led the charge to make Jesus’ command to feed his sheep a reality.

The need is great. About 25 percent of the population in Wauchula is below the poverty line.

Every Thursday, between 12 and 15 volunteers work the Feed My Sheep food pantry, serving about 85 people.

Every Thursday, between 12 and 15 volunteers work the Feed My Sheep food pantry, serving about 85 people. They also offer a full dinner Wednesday night at the church to about 90 folks, along with about 30 to-go boxes for those who are homebound.

They also distribute brown bag lunches three times every week.

Collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture and smart shopping by Sumner are keys to meeting the needs of community members who show up at First Wauchula’s downtown central location.

“We’re in the top five poorest counties in the state, and when we see people coming from working in the fields or homeless people living in their cars with kids and no food—well—seeing that is pretty motivating,” Upton said.

“We have evolved as a church to be passionate about feeding the hungry.”

She said there was a time when the church’s visioning team, herself included, took a hard look at the situation and the basic problem of hunger.

“We asked if we were just creating band-aids and not addressing the root of the problem, which is sometimes addiction, or disability or other factors,” she said.

That’s when they went back to the credo of welcoming the stranger.

A volunteer prepares food for a meal.

“If they’re hungry, we feed them until they’re not anymore,” she said.

Thus, church volunteers have ample opportunity to grow this ministry, without burning out while becoming the hands and feet of Christ every week.

Food from the U.S.D.A. is much improved over the past, Mardi Sumner happily reported. It includes fresh fruits and vegetables comparable to major grocery stores.

She also can acquire additional nourishment from the Heartland Food Bank in Sebring for just 19 cents per pound. The church also gives out meat and bakery items from the Food Bank.

“Mardi is a super shopper and does all the paperwork and makes sure everything is clean and done by the rules for when we get inspected every six months,” Upton said. “I don’t have to worry about anything.”

The church also provides special bags for the homeless with toiletries and other needs, as well as information about additional local sources of help. That includes the Hardee Help Center for assistance with emergency needs such as rent and electricity.When Hurricane Irma ravaged this area in 2017, First Wauchula provided its facilities as an emergency headquarters for the Red Cross and also aided with supplies to those in need.

In March 2019, First Wauchula celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Feed My Sheep ministry. Three different teams of volunteers work each week to fetch, receive, and sort food from the U.S.D.A., prepare, and distribute brown bag lunches and Wednesday night dinners.

The pistachios also went to good use.

Sumner tossed them in salads along with cranberries and walnuts as part of the Wednesday night dinners.

“This ministry has a ripple effect,” she said. “It just goes out from here.”

—Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Decatur, Ga.



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