Church food pantries fighting critical “summer hunger,” jobless needs

At some schools serving low-income neighborhoods, nearly every student is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Every morning, at schools all across the nation, children arrive a few minutes early to start the school day with breakfast. They get another meal at lunch. For children whose families are struggling to survive, those meals can make the difference between being hungry that day or not.

And then, school year ends and for many children, the meals end as well. Some communities do offer summer nutrition programs — sometimes through churches that offer summer day camps — but the need far outstrips the supply.

According to Bread for the World, more than 18 million school children receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year, but only 2.2 million receive meals during the summer. For every 100 school lunch sites in the country, there are only 32 summer food sites, the organization says.

“There is an enormous disparity” between the number of children needing food and those who have somewhere to go to get it, said Shawnda Hines, a grassroots media associate with Bread for the World. “You can ask any food bank in the country, and they almost all say they’re barely meeting the need.”

A report released in May 2009 from the organization Feeding America — formerly known as Second Harvest — found that in just over half the states, one in six young children (those younger than five years old) lives in risk of hunger. More than 12 million children in the United States are considered “food insecure,” meaning they do not consistently get enough food to live a healthy life.

And in many communities, faith-based groups are on the front line of response – collecting canned goods on Communion Sundays, providing volunteers and money for food pantries and soup kitchens. They also are front-line witnesses to the increasing demand for food assistance, as people who have lost their jobs or been unable to find work find themselves teetering too close to the line, unable to afford enough food, sometimes consistently month after month, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

In San Francisco, demand at the city’s food bank is up by 20 percent this year over the same time in 2008. New recession-relief food pantries are opening at a handful of new sites, including at Old First Church, primarily to serve those who are out of work and have not needed food assistance before.

In other places, the ongoing need of those living at the margins of solvency is evident.

St. John Church in San Francisco has operated a food pantry since 2000, serving people in two zip codes, both in neighborhoods near the church. When Jackie Autry started working with the food pantry three years ago, about 140 people would come each Saturday morning to pick up groceries, but now the church gives food to 250 people each week, many of them elderly Chinese or Russian women, some of whom help to support their extended families.

“We don’t have any homeless people” — having an address is a requirement for that program — “but I would say we have people who live on very limited incomes,” Autry said. “The food is a big help … . They’re living close to the edge.”

In St. Paul, a town of about 2,200 not far from Grand Island in Nebraska, Wes Stevens is among a group of volunteers who in 2008 organized a summer feeding program to help children who otherwise might go hungry.

“In St. Paul, at least a third of the kids qualify for low-cost meals,” said Stevens, a member of First Church. “But what do they do in the summertime, when school is not in session?”

So twice a week, volunteers from seven local churches and from civic groups cook a meal, which they are allowed to serve in the cafeteria of a local school. Some of the food comes from the food pantry; often the volunteers bake cookies or brownies for dessert (although Stevens learned the hard way that for an elementary-school crowd, it’s best to leave out the nuts).

Already this summer, the St. Paul program has fed as many as 66 children a day.

Now retired, Stevens said he volunteers in the program – and in lots of other ways – because “at least I’m looking at the flowers from the right side and not the bottom side. My health is reasonably good, and people have always been good to me. … I just figure I’m doing what Christ wants a person to do. If you profess faith in him, you should follow his example.”

Often, faith-based groups are at the heart of a community response to hunger – sometimes working in interfaith alliances, sometimes with volunteers from the secular world. Many churches also are feeling the impact of the increased demand. Funding for other programs dealing with hunger, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program, aren’t given enough funding to meet the needs.

More than 90 percent of the emergency food distribution system programs — food pantries and soup kitchens — are faith-based, and across the country “we hear stories of increased usage and difficulty keeping supplies” in food pantries, said Gary Cook, director of church relations for Bread for the World and former coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

“Those food distribution systems are critical, but they were really designed to be emergency systems, to deal with acute problems,” Cook said. “All too often they’re dealing with chronic hunger,” as those who’ve lost their jobs may not qualify for the SNAP program or may not yet be approved, and are also confronting rising food prices.

The need is being felt in cities and rural areas, in low-income neighborhoods and more affluent ones as well.

Barbara McDonald serves as stated supply pastor of Old Tennent Church in Manalapan, N. J., and also serves on the board of the Samaritan Center, a local food pantry.

“Our caseload has doubled since last September,” McDonald said. “It continues to grow, because people are continuing to be laid off now. This is a very affluent area, they built these huge mansions, and people bought them without being able to afford them. We’re going through all that mess.”

For many of those needing food assistance now, “this is an entirely new experience, because these people are not used to asking for help,” McDonald said. “And what we’ve discovered, though, is that the community has gotten much more supportive of us — giving food, giving gift cards.” A May food drive conducted by mail carriers, brought in 10,000 pounds of food, the largest collection ever in the region

“We were just dumbfounded at the response” since the recession has hit, McDonald said.

But there is no area feeding program for children in the summers. So, as the end of the school year approached, she asked people to consider donating “kid-friendly” food such as peanut butter, chicken noodle soup, and cereal. The Samaritan Center also supplements the food it provides with gift cards that families can use to buy whatever they need — from shoes to school supplies — and tries to provide basics that the government food program doesn’t, such as detergent and toilet paper.

The food pantry volunteers also learn, sometimes through trial and error, what kind of food people will use, with many food pantries trying to provide more fresh produce and responding to local demands. At St. John’s in San Francisco, for example, the volunteers have learned that their clients don’t like dairy products such as sour cream or yogurt but do want milk, which some give to the grandchildren for whom they provide care.

Why do so many churches get involved, even when the need can seem greater than what they can provide?

They understand that the benefits are immediate and obvious.

“It’s not something you do and hope there’s something good that comes from it,” Autry said. “You give food and people eat,” who otherwise wouldn’t.

“It’s Biblical,” McDonald said. “We’ve got all these stories — what does Jesus do all the time? He eats with people. One of the first stories kids learn is the feeding of the 5,000, the little boy who brought his lunch and gave it away. … This is what churches do.”

To feed the hungry is “Biblically about as direct as it gets,” Cook said, and in difficult economic times “people are digging deeper” to try to help. But “going beyond that to talk about why people are hungry and what we can do to keep that from happening is much more difficult to grasp and organize around,” yet it’s critically important.”

Organizations such as Feeding America and Bread for the World also encourage people of faith to become advocates for policies that will provide more assistance in addressing chronic hunger needs — so the emergency system doesn’t get even more overwhelmed.