By Ruth Herron and Anita Smelser
The young mother hesitated as she and her toddler stepped quietly into the foyer. She sat down quickly on the closest pew, shushing him and pulling him near her. She smiled tentatively as a worker greeted her and asked a few questions for record keeping. “Yes, it’s just me and my son. . . . Yes, we have transportation. . . . I got a job and someone to watch my little boy. . . . I start tomorrow.”
The young mother answered each of our questions, but we knew from experience the most important question she wanted answered from us was, “Can you help me get some food?” She had called earlier in the day, saying her family was out of food, but she would get back on her feet soon with the new job. She just needed help to tide her over. She was one of our first recipients of Gifts From the Heart, a food ministry. We helped her, and she helped us as we learned to meet physical needs with grace.
Jesus’ example to us is one of true service. During his short time on earth, he touched the untouchable, healed the broken, loved the unlovable, and fed the hungry. His service was as inspiring to us as his first miracle—changing water into wine—and as thought-provoking as giving assurance of an afterlife to the thief on the cross. We learn how to serve through him, and we learn our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who . . . made himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7).
Our food pantry, Gifts From the Heart, started in a little empty room in our church building. The room was in a highly visible location so the congregation witnessed how our food pantry was set up and watched it grow. We began with an occasional delivery and now give groceries regularly to those in need in our congregation, as well as those referred to us from our community.
In the beginning, our supplies and resources were limited. We stocked only canned goods and distributed one bag at a time. It wasn’t long before our available food grew from four bags to eight, and then to 16. Like the fishes and loaves in Matthew, our resources grew right along with the number of families we helped to feed. Jesus fed the people when they were hungry. We try to do the same.
We serve widows, out-of-work families, and children who just don’t get enough at home because there’s not money left for groceries if the light bill is paid. Their stories range from those who need immediate short-term help to those with a long-term need. One mother asked for help feeding her four children for about a year, long enough for her to finish school and get a better job. We did what we could and supplemented what she was able to buy. At the end of the year, we received a surprise thank-you note, telling us how much the ministry helped her family.
Some swallow their pride and come to us simply because there is nowhere else to turn.
“In 2002, over 4 million nonelderly low-income families said they had used a food pantry at least once during the past 12 months. The majority of these families had children” (www.urban.org/publications/310895). We’ve seen single mothers who struggle from week to week, retired elderly couples with no family to help them, and even an occasional traveler coming through our town who needs food. One man with an out-of-state license plate pulled into the church lot with his children. “I’m raising my four children, plus my sister’s two boys. I’m not asking for money, just for some food if you’ve got some.” We filled a couple bags with kid friendly food and sent him on his way back home.
We give out more than just bags of food. We give out hope and simple kindness, both sometimes hard to find in our society.
Who’s In Charge?
Our ministry started with one woman’s idea. She got together with a few friends who shared her vision and wanted to meet needs in our community. God’s plan unfolded as we worked together.
We needed money to purchase some items, and the congregation responded. More food was purchased and financial donations grew each month. We joined the Southwest Virginia Second Harvest Food Bank to increase the amount of food we could provide. We learned that “national organizations such as Second Harvest, which serves as a major broker between food companies and local pantries, are a critical part of a social safety net” (www.urban.org/publications/310895). We pay a small yearly due and donate 18 cents per pound to obtain more than triple the usual amount of canned and packaged foods as well as frozen meat.
One couple from our congregation talked to a local grocery about its surplus food—bread, cakes, rolls, fruits, vegetables (items that might have been marked down)—and the grocery began allowing committee volunteers to pick up and distribute grocery baskets full of food each day. We knew then that only our number of volunteers limited our ministry.
Before we started picking up this food, some of it ended up in Dumpsters, and sadly, there were families who regularly scavenged through them for food. The government estimated that “130 pounds of food per person end[s] up in landfills. . . . roughly 49 million people could have been fed by those lost resources” (“A Citizen’s Guide to Food Recovery,” United States Department of Agriculture, April 1997). Now, every day of the week, volunteers from our group go to local stores and work in all kinds of weather to deliver this food.
A local pizza parlor also packages each day’s buffet leftovers, donating them to volunteers to deliver to hungry families. Our food pantry practices food recovery, partnering with our community to use available food. This “is one creative way to help reduce hunger in America . . . by making better use of a food source that already exists” (“A Citizen’s Guide to Food Recovery”).
Food recovery like pizza and other perishables must be dispersed immediately, so volunteers need to know in advance where to deliver it. A family with six children plans on pizza delivery from our team one day each week. The mother said it was a great treat for her family, especially her three teenage boys.
As our ministry grew, stumbling blocks appeared. Each time, God helped us find a better way to continue giving out food. Our church began a building project that took our space. We distributed from an alternate location and focused on fresh items since storage was limited. But God took care of our ministry, and now we have a room close to the elevator near the fellowship hall where the ministry is highly visible.
Our distribution isn’t all seriousness and difficult work, although there’s plenty of that. Working together provides a time to build relationships with sisters and brothers in Christ. Whether it’s shopping at the local food bank, stocking shelves, or knocking on doors to give out the food, there’s time for lasting relationships to form.
We see a lot of sadness in the faces of people we serve, and we wish we could fix all the problems in their lives. But we know our ministry shows the love of Christ, and he’s the One who can fix their problems.
Our food pantry has expanded far beyond what we expected. Two other churches have begun their own food pantries as a direct result of our work with their volunteers. Together, we’re sharing from the abundance we have with families who never have enough.
First John 3:17, 18 says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” We seek to become servants of God, even when that service is physically difficult and emotionally challenging.
Often, our recipients share with their friends or neighbors and partner with us in our ministry. They know what it’s like to be hungry, even in America. We’re reducing hunger and helping families use our resources to supplement whatever they can afford to put on their dinner table. We’re building relationships, and that’s how people meet Christ through us.
That’s what Gifts From the Heart is all about.
See the sidebar: “When You Begin a Food Pantry.”
Ruth Herron and Anita Smelser live in Salem, Virginia.