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United Methodists adapting food ministries during COVID-19

Volunteer with Feeding Fannin in North Texas delivering food. Courtesy of Feeding Fannin. 2020.
Volunteer with Feeding Fannin in North Texas delivering food. Courtesy of Feeding Fannin. 2020.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the already serious problem of food insecurity in America. According to Feeding America, an estimated over 37 million Americans (11 million of whom were children) experienced some type of food insecurity in 2018. Still rising unemployment and lack of job security in certain industries during the lock-down has limited and removed the income for many Americans, only some of whom who were living near the poverty line prior to the pandemic. Many of those at high risk for catching the virus are the newly unemployed who have also lost health insurance or those in low-paying essential jobs, making it more dangerous for them to go  to grocery stores, food banks or shelters for help. In response, United Methodist churches and leaders are addressing food insecurity during COVID-19 in creative ways.

In New York City − one of the hardest hit areas of the country – officials estimate around 2 million residents are facing food insecurity. Some are experiencing food insecurity for the first time. NBC News reported that an estimated 17.1 million more Americans may start relying on food banks or pantries to feed themselves during this crisis. United Methodists and others serving as food bank staff and volunteers are offering comfort as well as food when they hear “This is my first time,” “I never thought I would need to come here” or “My children are hungry.”

The biggest challenge is getting fresh food to those in need without compromising social distancing guidelines. Most local food banks and pantries ordinarily have people come to a site to collect their food, but long lines in crowded facilities increase the risk of sparking mass outbreaks of the virus among the most vulnerable populations. No contact deliveries are the safest way to provide food, but many local organizations are organized neither to do mass deliveries nor do they have addresses for those most likely needing help. Churches may be able to provide volunteers to assist with deliveries and use their relationships within the community to identify people experiencing food insecurity.

Prior to the pandemic, the Rev. Dana Coker, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bonham, Texas had been involved in food ministry through Feeding Fannin. Fannin County is a high-poverty area. Feeding Fannin is a local coalition started by community leaders last year that uses the North Texas Food Bank’s mobile pantry to feed its community.

“When we held our first distribution during the pandemic in April, we were quickly overwhelmed,” Coker said. “Families had to register ahead of time to qualify for distribution with the food bank, but many people showed up onsite and had to be turned away. It was heart-breaking.”

Since then the food bank has adapted its process to better meet the needs of the community. They dropped the registration process in favor of a first-come first-serve system with the National Guard helping with distribution.

“Since the changes were adopted we did not have to turn nearly as many people away,” Coker said “Feeding Fannin also started a hot Tuesday Supper program supported by donations where families can pick up hot cooked meals via drive-through.”

Local businesses and community members have contributed to the success of the meal programs in Fannin County. “We utilize social media, local apps and email, but word of mouth among our church members to their neighbors has been one of the best ways to get the word out. Local businesses have also chipped in to help. Breakfast Stop (a local restaurant) provided food and supplies for one of our Tuesday suppers,” Coker said.

For First United Methodist Church in Eureka Springs Arkansas, advance planning and local partnerships with restaurants made a big difference.

“Our church began planning for the crisis back in March and received a $10,000 grant to help the needy in our community. We started buying pre-prepared frozen meals and partnered with local restaurants,” said the Rev. Blake Lasater, senior pastor.

“Answering the Call” is the church’s new mission that provides a variety of food-related services to the community. “Right now we’re hosting weekly pickups of frozen meals along with free pickups and deliveries of meals from local restaurants every day and free grocery and pharmacy deliveries for the elderly and immunocompromised,” Lasater said. “We have 60 people who volunteer in three-week rotations.”

To assure the safety of both volunteers and recipients, “Answering the Call” limits five volunteers at a time to packing meals on the back deck of a local restaurant. Each bag contains a sheet to wipe down the items, and all deliveries are no contact.

In Framingham, Massachusetts, a chef started her own food ministry out of her church’s kitchen. Diana Palmer is a lifelong United Methodist who was let go from her job as the chef at a youth retreat center in the wake of the pandemic. “I was sitting at my computer and decided I wanted to do something help during the crisis by providing meals to the community,” Palmer said. “I told my pastor, the Rev. Heather Kattan, who supported me.”

Palmer runs her “Faith in Food” program out of the kitchen of First United Methodist Church in Framingham, spending every afternoon from 2-6 p.m. preparing dinners meals for the local community.

“It started with a handful of church members asking for meals, but word has gotten out around town, so that we’re preparing around 70 meals a night now,” Palmer said. To protect against contamination Palmer works alone in the kitchen preparing and packaging the meals. Along with providing her with a kitchen, the church raises the money to pay for groceries and other supplies and provides volunteers to help deliver the meals.

Palmer’s commitment to serving others is a direct reflection of her deep Christian faith. She says she tries to live by “Proverbs 11:24-25 that says that when we give freely, we gain even more. I have deep roots in The United Methodist Church, with two great-grandfathers who were pastors.” Palmer also assists with her church’s community garden, which provides fresh produce for the needy.

You can learn more about Chef Diana Palmer’s Food for Faith ministry and her background as a lifelong United Methodist here.

These are few more examples of the ways churches are feeding the hungry during COVID-19. White River Junction United Methodist set up bins of free food outside their church for anyone who needs them. Bloomfield United Methodist in Iowa offers vouchers to buy food a town market, helping the needy and supporting local business the same time. Ross Street United Methodist in Lancaster, Pennsylvania combined food and book giveaways at an event in April. Friendship United Methodist Church in Boilingbrook, Illinois, recently opened a self-serve" micro-pantry". Operated like the growing number of church-sponsored blessing boxes, donors put their gifts in food into the box while those in need take a loaf of bread, box of cereal or whatever else is available and needed.

Realizing that escalating need has exceeded some churches' ability to keep their banks and pantries stocked, some annual conference bodies have provided grants. The Illinois Great Rivers Board of Global Ministries will make a $500 grant to any church applying for support of its food ministry. 

These are among creative ways churches can provide food for the hungry during the COVID-19 pandemic and in its aftermath. Churches may offer ministry from their own kitchens or partner with local restaurants, food banks or non-profits. They can arrange pickups or no contact deliveries. As trusted local institutions whose members have strong personal ties to the community, congregations are in a unique position to help their neighbors with basic needs like food during this crisis.

“What we provide is comfort food in the truest sense,” Palmer said, “meals that bring people joy during this time of heightened anxiety and insecurity.”

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.