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Churches fight hunger with summer meal program

Churches fight hunger with summer meal program

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches fight hunger with summer meal program

By Derek Maul | Aug. 6, 2009 {1062}

Nearly 17 percent of Florida children do not enjoy consistent access to the daily nutrition they need to grow and thrive. That’s according to a report called “Child Food Insecurity in the United States” issued by the national hunger relief nonprofit Feeding America.

It’s a problem throughout the year, but especially during the summer when children don’t have the benefit of school breakfasts and lunches.

Children get ready to eat lunch at Rogers Memorial United Methodist Church. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1280.

This summer 43 United Methodist and African Methodist Episcopal churches worked to fill the gap between school terms by serving as meal sites under the federally funded Summer Food Service Program.

It’s part of the Florida Conference’s commitment to end childhood hunger. At the 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event, members voted on and approved a conference-wide social witness initiative to address a variety of children’s issues, including a mandate to stimulate ministries that specifically target child hunger in Florida.

The conference has been working collaboratively with Florida Impact, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit working to reduce hunger and poverty since 1979, and other organizations to achieve that goal.

The Florida Department of Education administers the Summer Food Service Program in Florida. Florida Impact is a sponsor, handling administrative and financial responsibilities and working with the vendors that provide the meals.

Child Nutrition Coordinator Ebony Faith Yarbrough has been with Florida Impact since 2001. “We’ve had a great response from Methodist churches,” she said. “Often several congregations come together to pool resources, space and volunteers.”

Yarbrough says the number of children who qualify for free lunch programs at schools is increasing. “The rolls rose by 75,000 this year alone,” she said. “It’s highly likely that they’re not receiving appropriate nutrition during the summer.”

“So far we’re only reaching about 12 percent of the kids who qualify,” Yarbrough added. “But people can tell a difference in kids in terms of being ready to learn in the fall.”

Joining forces

One location where the food service program is making a difference is Rogers Memorial United Methodist Church in Bradenton, where the Rev. Dr. Bill Bailey serves as pastor.

“We believe that the world is our parish … that it’s the church that has the relationship with God and that the church’s responsibility is to the community. God left nothing on earth to correct the world’s problems but the church.” 

Rev. Dr. Bill Bailey

“This is my second year here,” Bailey said. “We’ve put into motion several different overlapping social ministries. Community youth from Workforce Florida help with the summer day camp, and a lot of those children benefit from the (meal program).”

Day camp director Yavaweka Fields is a member of the church. She works with many children who she says would otherwise go hungry. “The nutrition program is very important,” she said. “Some children don’t have any lunch in the summer.”

Fourteen-year-old Nyla Mitchel serves as contact person for the meal program. “We have about 30 kids that come,” she said. “We serve them food from 11:30 to 1. All kind of food they like to eat. They come again and again and again.”

Mitchel said the program helps everyone. “I’m not from the church,” she said. “But now, instead of sitting home being bored, I’m helping out, helping the kids. This does impact the community.”

“The need is critical, and it’s proliferating,” Bailey said. “We’re seeing people every day, and we’re just scratching the surface. Bankruptcy, eviction, foreclosure — it’s overwhelming. Everybody’s out of money; the food banks are about empty. It puts a lot on the churches.”

With fewer than 200 members and around 100 active in worship, Rogers Memorial does not enjoy the depth of resources needed to implement such a program without help. But Methodism is not about acting alone, and the partnership made possible via the conference initiative and collaboration with Florida Impact, as well as the state, is empowering.

“These Workforce Florida kids are being paid and getting work experience,” Bailey said. “Part of what we do is to teach them how to work with the kids and to be employable. We need to look forward to the future, rebuild a new economy, begin to learn employment skills.”

For Rogers Memorial, interacting with the surrounding neighborhood at its point of greatest need is not just the right thing to do, it’s classic Methodist theology.

Nyla Mitchel (center) serves as contact person for the food program at Rogers Memorial United Methodist Church. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1281.

“We believe that the world is our parish … that it’s the church that has the relationship with God and that the church’s responsibility is to the community,” Bailey said. “God left nothing on earth to correct the world’s problems but the church. The relationship is between Christ and the world, and we each have a part in building that kingdom on earth. You can’t do that if it’s only between you and Jesus.”

“I’m concerned sometimes that we’re not grateful for what we do have, having done ministry in other parts of the world and having seen spiritual giants who have very little except faith and hope,” Bailey added. “If we can take some of that gratitude, I believe we can begin to do a lot more. I think that all things are possible.”

Fields says she’s optimistic. “The youth who work here — some of them are getting the message, and I hope to see them again,” she said. “We do preach with our actions.”

Yarbrough says congregations interested in getting involved should assess the local need, check into what's happening in their neighborhood, plug in if and where interventions are already in place, contact the Florida Department of Education for information on how to sponsor a site, make plans early enough to attend mandatory training events, and look into building a partnership with several churches to spread the responsibilities.

“We’re also a good point of contact at Florida Impact,” she said.

Churches interested in the meal program may contact Melinda Trotti, director of the Florida Conference’s justice and spiritual formation ministries, at or 800-282-8011, extension 504, or Yarbrough at or 850-309-1488

More information about Florida Impact is available at “Child Food Insecurity in the United States” is available at

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

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.