Food for the body and soul

Historically, the churches, in their various denominations, have been a source of refuge and aid for those seeking help.

They have since branched out into providing food and meal aids to the food insecure among us, and the services provided can be as varied as the denominations that provide them.

The Heavenly Food Pantry is operated by First Congregational Church in Essex, Vermont, and is open to the public of Essex, Essex Junction and Westford. However, they only operate their food pantry once a month.

“Our main room in our church — our Fellowship Hall — turns into a grocery store, with produce, and dairy, and meat, and baked goods, and canned goods,” said Laurie Chipman, the Christian education director at First Congregational. “And families come in one at a time, and go through with a volunteer, and select their food.”

Since the Heavenly Food Shelf is only active for one or two days per month, typically the fourth Thursday, this particular church acts as more of a food supplement service. The reason behind this schedule is a matter of practicality, at least for Heavenly Food Shelf.

“I think it mainly has to do with our facility and how they set it up,” said Chipman, “and the fact that our room is used by everyone else in the church for all the different gatherings. The main room is actually used to create the food pantry. We have food . . . that’s actually stored at other places. Everything comes out of the woodwork, one could say, in order to create the space.”

There are also no religious requirements at Heavenly Food Shelf for clients who are looking for food. If someone is looking for food, they will get served.

“We began as a mission of our church, but serve anyone living in Essex, Essex Junction and Westford, with no regard to the family’s religious affiliation,” said Anita Guild, from Heavenly Food Shelf. “Our volunteers are a combination of church and community members, with a large contingency of our local Rotary Club helping as well.  The pantry operates out of our Church Fellowship Hall at no cost.”

In most instances, these are churches that also happen to serve the function of feeding the needy. They aren’t like other food shelves or pantries, which are dedicated to having the one function of feeding the food insecure.

With some cases, these food shelves or pantries are loosely affiliated with the churches, such as the Bradford Churches Food Shelf. In this case, they are actually located in the Bradford Academy building, as opposed to the church.

“[The food shelf] used to be the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church, [which] each had their arm, and then probably 15 to 20 years ago they combined and made it into one food shelf, sponsored by those churches,” said Jenny Copeland, a member of the Bradford Churches Food Shelf.

The churches support the food shelf by acting as overseers of sorts, donating some of the food that gets handed out. In addition, they also keep track of the money and things of that nature.

And some churches take a much different approach to the problem of donating food to the insecure. Essex Alliance Church, operating out of Essex Junction, collects the food it donates from its congregations, to be delivered to the Williston Food Shelf.

“On a monthly interval, we provide the cloth grocery bags that you’d find at a local market [to the congregation],” said Jim Wilkens, pastor of care at Essex Alliance. “For those who anticipate contributing, we distribute those on a Sunday prior to the Sunday that we actually then collect the food that’s brought in, and then we deliver it.”

The food that Essex Alliance donates comes solely from the members of the congregations who volunteer to contribute, not receiving food from other sources. They also do not themselves distribute the food, but rather trailer it over to the Williston Food Shelf for distribution.

Yet food gathering and donation isn’t all that Essex Alliance does. They also have their Fish and Loaves program, which is “an effort on the part of the church to develop methods and sourcing of augmentation to area food needs, whether Essex Junction or surrounding communities,” according to Wilkens.

The basics of the Fish and Loaves program is that it looks into ways of utilizing hydroponics to augment their existing food donation efforts. At the present time, that particular program is pursued less than others because of the need for space to grow the vegetables, which the church doesn’t currently have in as much abundance as it used to.

Another thing that varies between churches is the amount of people reached per month. In areas of higher traffic and greater numbers of population, like Essex Junction, the numbers could go up. The Heavenly Food Shelf receives approximately 60 to 85 families per month and, as a result, have to open their doors more often to accommodate the people who need food.

“We now actually have not just one day a month, [but] actually now two, because the fourth Thursday of the month is from two to six, and now [there’s] the second Monday of the month . . . from 5:30 to 7:30,” said Chipman. “We’re trying to reach more families that are of a working timeframe that have a hard time getting here before six o’clock.”

But food banks and pantries aren’t the only way that these churches are getting food to the masses. The United Church of Johnson, which is partnered with Laraway Youth and Family Services and the SERVE office of Johnson State College, puts on a biweekly meal for its community.

Two Wednesdays a month, food provided by Sodexo at Johnson State College is driven down to the church for a banquet-style meal for the public to enjoy. While there are certainly some who use this meal to supplement their diet, others merely come to socialize.

“A lot of the people who come are elderly people who don’t necessarily get out as much, and they clearly really enjoy their time there — it’s always a lot of fun watching people interact,” said Sarah Golden, the coordinator of community service at JSC’s SERVE office. “And there’s a lot of laughter . . . so it’s really just creating a space where anyone can come and just enjoy the company of other people while enjoying a meal.”

The community meal is made possible through the concerted efforts of the SERVE office and the church, and also through the efforts of the youth coordinator at Laraway, Rick Auperlee. Volunteers to staff the meal are pulled from the campus and surrounding community in town, and numbers can vary with each meal.

“I recruit volunteers from the community and from the Johnson campus, and Brendan [Walsh] helps out with the marketing,” said Golden. “Perhaps more importantly, Tom Fondakowski and Sodexo is actually responsible for donating the food every single meal. So huge, huge thanks always to Sodexo, because it wouldn’t be possible without them.”

In addition to providing the venue for this event to take place in and the basic setup required to eat off, the church also provides a small band that sets up in the corner for a little entertainment while the patrons eat.

And for those members of the community who cannot attend the meal itself, there is also the option of getting a meal to go. For some people, leaving the house just isn’t an option for a multitude of reasons, and so takeout containers are packed to bursting with food.

“It’s nice to be able, with the takeout containers, [to] literally stuff them until you can’t close them and know that they’re going to be taken to someone who’s going to be able to eat for a day or two and have that delivered to their home,” said Golden. “It’s not required that they eat there, because there are quite a few people who come in who have friends or family members who are homebound.”

As the parable of the mustard seed from the Bible says, great things often have the smallest beginnings. So while churches aren’t as widely utilized as other charitable food services, they continue to help those who have need of a little nourishment, both of the body and soul.