‘We had to find a way to feed them.'
Summer food ministries serve children
By EMILY SNELL
Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, N.Y., a city of about 28,000 people, organizes Abraham's Table, an ecumenical children's food ministry, which began in summer 2010. Started after the city eliminated its federal feeding program because of budget concerns, Abraham's Table served 12,500 lunches to children younger than 18 during its six weeks of operation in 2011.
Abraham's Table serves children in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While the relationship requires following specific rules, said the Rev. Evy McDonald, she sees it as beneficial. Being associated with the USDA relieves many of the financial concerns.
"If you don't want to follow their rules, don't even try it," the pastor of Grace Church said. "We had a fairly easy time because the chairperson of our board was a former head of a school lunch program in the area. She knew how to work with the USDA program."
Abraham's Table consistently serves lunches at eight locations. The sites are staffed by about 40 volunteers and by four monitors, required by the USDA, who receive small stipends.
In the area around Belle, Mo., a rural town of roughly 1,300, Belle United Methodist Church packs food bags for children in need. Because of funding cuts, the school district ended its summer feeding program in 2010. Belle Church recognized a need to provide the children with food.
Collaborating with the USDA was not a feasible option during the summer, largely because of the regulations requiring the children to eat at a central location with staff present, said the Rev. Sandra Dixon. In Belle, most children live outside the city limits and do not have transportation into town
Revamp existing ministry
With the federal rules complicating providing hunger assistance, the community faced "three months of kids going hungry," Dixon said, "and that just weighed heavily on our hearts."
The solution was to continue the food bag ministry the church offers throughout the school year but to use a different format during the summer.
Belle school counselor Constance Smith helped church members create a system. They packed the bags with ready-to-eat items or food the children could prepare, just as they do during the school year. Then Smith delivered the bags to the children's homes.
The Belle and Newburgh programs operate very differently yet both sprouted from recognizing a need in the community. Both pastors say their feeding initiatives are successful and growing.
Offering such a ministry is doable, McDonald said, adding that churches need to get the community and the school system involved.
"I think anybody can do it," she continued. "It just takes one step at a time—being excited about the vision, getting the plan ready, getting other people involved and motivated."
Nearly 75 percent of the children in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, she continued. After the city went through the summer of 2009 with no organized feeding program, a few church members discussed the issue and were determined not to let the same thing happen again.
In Belle, high unemployment and underemployment plague the people, Dixon said, adding that sometimes the needs of hungry children are exacerbated by parents engaged in illegal activities.
Her community has problems similar to those in urban areas. "You see it a lot more plainly when you know your neighbors' names. Our hearts just bled when we knew what was going on. We had to find a way to feed them."
Expanding into the school year
Thurston United Methodist Church in tiny Thurston, Ohio, began a summer feeding program in 2010, after seeing the needs of children involved with its after-school program.
"Children in town come from low-income families," said the Rev. Rebeka Maples. "We were worried about them in the summer. It grew out of knowing the needs in the community. People started seeing the needs and (developing) a passion for the kids."
Church members purchase and cook the food at Thurston Church. One woman oversees the menus, ensuring healthy options for a balanced diet.
The program continued this fall, providing meals two days a week to adults and children who are not in school.
All of the pastors see their ministries as a clear fulfillment of Jesus' command to feed the hungry.
Serving where we are
"As Christians, this is our whole purpose," Dixon said. "The program has allowed us to open our eyes and see the needs around us and begin looking at Christ
"The church exists to put forward Christ to the world, and if we're not doing something beyond our walls, we're no better than a country club," she continued. "I wanted the church to be in ministry, to truly look beyond itself into the world around us."
Maples said it is important for the church to do ministry in its own community and not neglect the needs of those who live next door.
"We need to be in mission to the world beyond this community, but, especially, I think we need to be serving right where we are," Maples said. "The church begins where we are, not where we aren't. If we can grow this, all things become possible. It's what we're called to do."
Adding new ministries to a church does mean financial commitment. The pastors said the process has taught their churches to walk in faith and to trust God with their resources.
Dixon said when her church encountered a financial quandary in its feeding ministry, the members sought community help.
"(We) tuck our fear back and if God is in it, trust that he will provide," she said. "We ask for donations from companies. Whenever things start to dry up a little bit, we ask. The best way to get help is to ask for it."
Maples said the Thurston ministry receives funding from a variety of groups including the VFW, organizations in towns nearby and other churches in the surrounding community – as well as the congregation.
"People in the church have been really good about seeing the need and responding," Maples said.
Ultimately, McDonald said, the feeding program is about much more than providing meals.
"You're doing more than just handing out a lunch," McDonald said. "You're handing out love; you're giving hope; you're making lives better ... with sandwiches and fruit and milk."
Emily Snell, a communications major at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., completed her internship at United Methodist Communications in December.
To learn more:
Belle United Methodist Church | Belle, Mo. | (573) 859-6176 | firstname.lastname@example.org | Average Worship Attendance: 28
Grace United Methodist Church | Newburgh, N.Y. | (845) 561-0176 | www.graceumcnewburgh.org | email@example.com | Average Worship Attendance: 115
Thurston United Methodist Church | Thurston, Ohio | (740) 862-6943 | www.gbgm-umc.org/thurstonumc | firstname.lastname@example.org | Average Worship Attendance: 86
Child Nutrition Programs, U.S. Department of Agriculture, www.usda.gov/cnd. Application deadlines vary from state to state, but many are in the first quarter of the year.