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Florida Conference churches respond to their neighborhood food shortages

Florida Conference churches respond to their neighborhood food shortages

COVID-19 Missions and Outreach

At the Loxahatchee Groves campus of Community of Hope United Methodist Church, the cars wind in a long, serpentine line, like Disney visitors queued up for a popular ride, through the church’s 25-acre property.

When they reach the church itself – small compared to the large lot on which it sits – they pop the trunk and volunteers wearing masks put in boxes of food.

The numbers tell the story of the trauma wrought by COVID-19 in the community, said Associate Pastor Trevor Johnston.
About 200 cars visited the first time the church held the food giveaway in late March. Then word got around. By mid-April, it was 646.

“It’s staggering,” Johnston said. “It’s growing exponentially. On one hand we’re doing great ministry. On the other hand, it’s very sad.”

Similar scenes take place twice a week at New Horizon United Methodist in Southwest Ranches.

At New Horizon, Peytyn Tobin, associate pastor for children youth and families, has run a program since 2008 that provided meals – plus guidance, mentoring and other needed help – on days when school was out for children who normally receive free lunches or breakfasts at school.

New Horizon UMC is filling a need for food in a trying time.

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, she said, “We have morphed into a program that feeds school children, plus college students, and families. It’s for anyone that needs some hope, some help to make their resources go further. They may not have had a need before, but it’s become a need today.”

These are two of probably dozens or scores of United Methodist Churches around the state that have responded to the economic calamity of the coronavirus pandemic with programs to help prevent or alleviate “food insecurity” in their communities.

The term doesn’t mean starvation – it means families that are financially strapped so they’re not certain of being able to buy enough groceries to make sure everyone in the household has enough to eat. And there are thousands of them.
In 2008, then working as volunteer youth director at the church, she was surprised to learn that 15 percent of Broward County families were in that situation.

She started trying to figure out how to get the teens she worked with in the church involved in ways to help.

She got a small grant and launched Pack-a-Sack, aimed at subsidized lunch and breakfast children at local elementary schools. She got a small grant and started off serving 10 kids.

Before the pandemic, it had already grown to serving 300 students in about a dozen schools, plus about 100 students at Broward College’s four campuses, who also work in the program as a leadership experience, finding problems in the community the church can help solve.

About 50 high school students carried out the food distribution in schools.

The effort was incorporated recently into a non-profit called Nourishing Lives, with Tobin as executive director, which partners with local civic groups and brings in volunteers from inside and outside the church. She estimated it involved some 12,000 volunteer hours a year.

Now the program provides family food boxes once a week, not just for the subsidized lunch children.

“We don’t ask a whole lot of questions” of those who say they need help, she said. “They just call, and we ask them how many in the family. Kids need food to learn, they need food to grow.”

A free-standing non-profit organization getting donations and thousands of volunteer hours from the community may seem like an unusually sophisticated effort for a mid-sized church like New Horizon. But Tobin described it as “a very mission-minded church.”

Community of Hope is also a mission-oriented church.

It carries out food giveaways at its Loxahatchee Groves facility and at its West Palm Beach campus, which Johnston calls “COH-Espanol,” located in a community that’s about 50 percent Hispanic.

The West Palm campus was formerly known as Good Shepherd United Methodist – a large church with a sanctuary able to seat 1,700 but found itself failing, with attendance dropping as low as 200.
In 2017, it merged with Community of Hope, headed by head Pastor Dale Locke.

“They adopted our mission, our vision, our values, our DNA,” Johnston said. “It worked. They were almost ready to close, but now it’s growing again.”

The dual-campus church began the food giveaways as a partnership with Feeding South Florida, a non-profit that provides food to various food pantries in South Florida.

It’s aimed, like the New Horizon effort, at kids from low-income families who are now missing the daily free meals they get at local schools.

But it’s really for “anybody in our community who had a need,” Johnston said.

Each food box also contains a flier with information about the on-line services that have replaced in-person Sunday worship. Johnston said that has dramatically increased the on-line attendance.

A “very conservative estimate” of that attendance on a Sunday in mid-March was over 5,000.

“People are hungry for food but they’re also hungry for hope,” he said. “We help people find hope.”

--William March is a freelance writer from Tampa.


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