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Conference churches tackle hunger through food pantries

Conference churches tackle hunger through food pantries

Editor’s note:  October is World Hunger Action Month, and World Food Day is October 16. World Food Day is a day of action against hunger, and on October 16 people around the world come together to declare their commitment to eradicate hunger in our lifetime. Click here for more information, resources and events.

Many would suggest job insecurity leads to food insecurity.

When guests at the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry, a 501(c)3 organization at Montverde United Methodist Church reveal that they are unemployed, volunteers simply tell them that if they take care of their bills, the church will provide food for their families.

“A lot of them are losing their jobs,” pantry worker Bob Bennett said. “If somebody loses a job, we simply tell them, 'You come here for food. We'll take care of your food if you take care of your bills.' After about two to three months, they are back on their feet. But by the time they get back on their feet, we have two or three more.”

One in eight people worldwide does not have enough food. The number of hungry people across the globe exceeds the combined populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union.

In Florida, the situation also leaves a bad taste. It's estimated that more than 3.2 million residents suffer food insecurity, which is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”

The numbers associated with the response to hunger in Florida are as encouraging as the food insecurity statistics are daunting.

Feeding Florida is another 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to end hunger in Florida. It feeds 3.3 million Floridians each year, including 1.1 million children and 700,000 seniors. Through 14 regional food banks, it provides food to more than 2,500 community- and faith-based non-profit agencies statewide, including Methodist churches and food pantries.

A Stop Hunger Now 2016 event was held at CrossRoad Church UMC in Jacksonville.

Across the Florida Conference many churches operate food pantries, some of which receive food from regional food banks, including Montverde UMC in Montverde, Edgewater UMC in Port Charlotte and Tice UMC in Fort Myers. 

Edgewater UMC

Some churches' food pantries go years without growing larger than a shopping cart, set near the front door of the narthex, where members can deposit canned goods before entering the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Others, like the one at Edgewater UMC, start out in a closet and grow to be so much more.

Diane Jones, director of servant ministries at Edgewater, has been involved with the food pantry there since 2010. She says the pantry succeeds because of the kindness of volunteers who greet those in need.

“Our goal is to make all of our guests feel comfortable here, feel like they are worth something, feeling that when they come here they can find a safe place to be,” she said. Pantry guests tell Jones they don't feel judged.

Edgewater receives food from the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers, one of the 14 regional food banks affiliated with Feeding Florida. The Edgewater food pantry was founded by Sarah and John Neiman in 1993. It served 445 families in August of 2016, up from 107 families in February of 2010. The peak years during the past six were 6,139 households in 2011 and 6,430 in 2012.

Jones says volunteers gain the trust of guests by calling them by name and walking with them through the “pantry of choice.” While they do give each guest a bag of food staples, such as canned goods, “We don't give them what we think they need. We let them pick what they feel they need.”

'Pretty well gone'

Formed in September 2009, the Montverde United Methodist Church’s Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry is run by Bob Bennett and his wife Julie. Their guests are primarily residents of Montverde, a town of approximately 1,500 residents near Orlando and the surrounding community. While Julie orders food and solicits grants, Bob coordinates volunteers.

CROS Ministries is blessed to have volunteers from area congregations, civic groups and businesses partner with us to feed the hungry in our community. The Monday morning crew prepares lunch for the Caring Kitchen with hot meals and a social service program in Delray Beach.

On a Tuesday in mid-September this year, Loaves & Fishes received more than 3,000 pounds of groceries and “it's pretty well gone now,” Bob Bennett said a few days later. “We went through a lot of families, 60-plus families in one day.”

Bennett said the Great Recession may have ended years ago, but food insecurity exists among their guests today.

Many ways to nourish

Paula Hanson, parish nurse and lay leader at Tice UMC in Fort Myers, says they have served as many as 300 families in one day, but typically 150 come by. Families come once a month to augment their groceries. By contrast, when the pantry opened several years ago, it served maybe 10 to15 families a day.

Like Edgewater, Tice receives food from the Chapin Food Bank. “Church and community members also donate food,” Hanson said. They receive donations from Midwest Food Bank as well.

Sometimes the church combines the monthly food pantry day with other events. Tice was scheduled to host a free community wellness day on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the church. They were planning to provide free services – such as blood pressure and blood glucose testing, plus screening for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases – while food is distributed. They hope to attract many people to the simultaneous events.

“We try to nourish our community in many ways,” Hanson said. 

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice