By Troy M. Borst
A food ministry can be an effective way for an urban church to engage the congregation, serve its neighbors, and share Christ’s love. But such a ministry isn’t without challenges.
New Beginnings Christian Church in Tampa, Florida (www.newbeginningscctampa.org), operates a successful food pantry that serves 80 to 90 people on a regular basis as a means of reaching out to South Tampa. For more than a decade, we have provided food staples for the homeless, poor, and working poor in Tampa. It is an essential part of how we love our immediate neighbors. Matthew 25:34-46 guides us in this type of ministry; Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (v. 40).
Here are five keys for a successful food ministry and three crucial attitudes that will help along the way.
FIVE AREAS OF IMPORTANCE FOR A SUCCESSFUL FOOD MINISTRY
1. FOOD OFFERINGS: “It takes donations”
Stick to the basics: offer canned goods and nonperishables only. The congregation can donate these items without any confusion. The food pantry clients will also know what to expect. Confusion is an enemy of effectiveness.
Nonperishable food will not go bad in the ebb and flow of weekly collection and distribution. A ministry that includes fruit, cold items, and frozen foods must contend with additional issues, as well as the increased cost of maintaining refrigerators and freezers. Provide one bag of nonperishables per person or family with each distribution.
2. SCHEDULING: “It takes planning”
NBCC has run the pantry two different ways. First, we had it on demand: whenever the church building was open, a person could come and get a bag of food. Office staff would pack a bag on the spot, pulling from available items, and give it to the client. This can work, but it is not the most effective method.
The better manner of distributing food is once a week. This allows for everyone involved—people who plan, people who provide, and those who receive—to be ready. This method also eases stress on church staff and engages more church members to serve.
3. VOLUNTEERS: “It takes servants”
Many people in our church family play roles in making our Tuesday food pantry distribution possible. Once every few months, the 65 people who come to our Wednesday meals double-up grocery bags for pantry use; these bags are stored away. Four volunteers stock food donations that arrive on Sundays. Two volunteers use donated funds to purchase food from a local bulk store. A group of four people comes on Monday morning and packs each double-bag with green beans, chili, crackers, ramen, beans, canned fruit, and the like. And then, on Tuesdays, four volunteers distribute the food.
Each of these jobs can be done with more people or fewer people. The 80 to 90 bags we distribute are usually gone in one hour.
4. FUNDING: “It takes money”
In my experience, money is the hardest part of a food ministry. If not enough food is donated, it costs money to purchase food to supplement the shortfall. Donations sometimes are light, but when that happens, people are still hungry. People still arrive at our door on Tuesdays with their hands out. The homeless guy who lives behind the laundromat still expects to receive some food from the church.
This being the reality, our food ministry requires $300 to $400 a week in addition to donated food items. The cost varies week to week because donations vary.
5. COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: “It takes reaching out”
Local restaurants, grocery stores, financial institutions, scouts, other churches, military bases, and veterans organizations often are willing to provide assistance to a church’s food pantry, as it’s a service that’s good for the neighborhood. Be willing to accept help . . . and don’t be shy about asking for help.
Restaurants and grocery stores can donate dented cans or unused food. Banks often have food drives; ask them to drive donations right to your church! By reaching out to other organizations and businesses in your community, you create a network of goodwill and also expand God’s influence with your neighbors. These donations decrease the overall cost of your ministry.
3 KEY ATTITUDES FOR A SUCCESSFUL FOOD MINISTRY
ATTITUDE 1: IT’S OK TO BE CHEATED
A man comes to a church and is given one bag of food. He goes out to the church parking lot, puts on a hat, and comes back in to get another bag. A woman brings her daughter with her so they can receive two bags for their household. A person brings a toddler (not her own) to try to leverage more help from the church. The sad truth is, poor and hungry people will cheat to get food. Folks will lie, lie, lie to get money, clothing, and food. It’s called sin. It’s called survival. It’s also normal (Proverbs 6:30).
You must absolutely let this go. We are instructed to “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Ephesians 6:7). We are packing and giving out food ultimately for our Lord and not for the people.
In the end, they are cheating God (and I wouldn’t want to be them on Judgment Day). We must do as God commands no matter what others might do.
ATTITUDE 2: IT’S OK TO SAY NO
Our food pantry usually operates from 9 to 10 a.m. on Tuesdays. It’s not unusual for people to come after we close at 10 a.m. People sometimes come on Wednesday and Thursday. It is absolutely permissible to tell the needy to come back when the food pantry is open. This creates boundaries within which the poor will work. People understand and respect it.
People also will tell you that your church is their only source of food, but will regularly go to three other places. You can provide a resource list of other food banks (and their hours). That way, if your church cannot help at that particular time, perhaps another organization can.
Boaz, after all, gave Ruth boundaries for gleaning in his field (see Ruth 2:8, 9). Boundaries are good and help reduce frustration.
ATTITUDE 3: ALWAYS SERVE THE HOMELESS
Every rule has its exceptions and gray areas. One exception we have made is to try to serve the homeless whenever they come by. We have “pop-top” cans and nonperishables set aside in certain bags for people we determine to be homeless. It does not help a homeless person to give them food they need to cook (such as spaghetti). We give out “pop-top bags” any day at any time.
God frowns upon withholding food from the hungry (Job 22:7; Proverbs 25:21); he seeks to help those who are hungry (Deuteronomy 8:3; Psalm 146:7; Proverbs 10:3; Matthew 14:16; 15:32). Homeless folks or those living in their car are the least among us and should be cared for as often as we are able.
YOU CAN DO IT!
If you are looking for an effective way to expand the influence of Christ in your city, and a way to engage as many people in your congregation as possible to serve others, consider starting a food ministry!
Troy M. Borst has served with New Beginnings Christian Church, Tampa, Florida, for more than 12 years, first as associate minister and now as senior minister. He also serves as an associate instructor at Johnson University Florida and professor of communication at Missional University.
WEB EXTRA: 8 Key Questions to Ask before Starting This Type of Ministry
1. Will starting this ministry (or the way we intend to do it) put undue stress on our church staff?
2. Are we willing to spend money to keep the food ministry operating if donations decline?
3. Do we have servants who sincerely want to carry out this ministry?
4. Are area grocery stores or restaurants willing to help with this food ministry?
5. What does our church want to be known for?
6. Will poor, working poor, or homeless people within two miles of our church benefit from this ministry?
7. Does our church have space to store canned goods and other nonperishable food items before it is distributed?
8. Will people in the church family be frustrated or upset if the majority of people who receive food never come back for services?
Best First Steps and Best Practices
• Meet with staff, ministry leaders, and influential members to see if this type of ministry is consistent with the goals and desires of the church family.
• Determine the exact proximity of low-income areas to your church. Truly poor or homeless folks walk, ride bikes, and take buses to get to food pantries.
• Establish a trial period—perhaps one year—to determine whether the food ministry is effective. (It is likely word of mouth will contribute to growth during that time.)
• Seriously consider the wisdom of Luke 14:28-30: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”
• Be firm with boundaries (hours of operation, for example).
• Don’t give out expired food.
Suggested Food Pantry Items
Individual boxes of cereal (not large boxes)
Boxed crackers (4, 8, or 12 sleeves per box)
Jelly (small jars)
Macaroni & cheese
Milk (dry or in a box)
Drinks (waters or juice boxes)
Canned meat (not crab)