When we picture the hungry, we often think of lines snaking down the block at urban soup kitchens or tired-looking men asking for money on the subway. But, as many of our partner programs know, hunger takes its toll on small-town and rural residents too, and often in much harsher ways. Whereas New York City is blessed with a strong network of food pantries that serve nearly every neighborhood, the spread-out landscape upstate leaves some areas completely lacking in food banks for dozens of miles. Thankfully, several of Episcopal Charities’ partner programs are tackling this issue each year.
As our Basic Human Needs 2014 grant season kicks off (with applications due on October 4), members of the Episcopal Charities staff including Henry Enright, Meredith Kadet and Rachel Quednau had the opportunity to visit one of these programs at St. Thomas’ Church in Amenia Union. When we arrived after our two-hour drive through forests and hills far from the city, we were greeted by the Reverend Betsy Fisher who has been vicar of this rural parish since 2007. Mother Betsy kindly gave us a tour of her food pantry and garden plots, as well as her church, which is in the process of an impressive restoration. It’s a small parish that had just twenty members when Mother Betsy arrived, but has since grown to about a hundred. A huge part of this increase in membership is due to the parish’s dedicated efforts to create and run a food pantry out of the church with the help of community members and local farmers.
Back in 2009, just after the recession began, Mother Betsy and her congregation recognized a strong need for a food pantry to service their area. With few resources and even less space, St. Thomas opened their “Food of Life/Comida de Vida” pantry right in the church sanctuary, providing staple ingredients for nine meals a week to every person who came through their doors. The pantry is unique for several reasons. First, after reading the book Toxic Charity as a parish, St. Thomas decided to refer to their patrons as “neighbors,” respecting their dignity and self-determination rather than stereotyping them as “needy.” Their neighbors are young and old, families and single people, all of whom just need a little extra help when it comes to putting food on the table—many while in the midst of working multiple jobs, paying for rent, utilities, gas and so on. Another unique aspect of Food of Life/Comida de Vida is that it allows neighbors to stop by on a weekly rather than monthly basis, unlike many other pantries. Finally, the pantry is open to all and does not require identification or proof of citizenship in order for someone to receive food.
With the help of a grant from Episcopal Charities, the St. Thomas food pantry was able to relocate into a small addition on the existing parish hall. This houses their refrigerator, freezer and dry goods. Every Friday, volunteers from the church and the surrounding area set up dairy, produce, beans, rice, cereal and other foods around the parish hall. Once their neighbors arrive, everyone gathers in a circle for a brief prayer (if they choose to participate), then neighbors are given the chance to select their meals for the week. In addition, Food of Life/Comida de Vida includes a bookshelf from which children can take a free book each time they visit. Volunteers also connect their neighbors with area social services and provide them with listening ears and spiritual comfort. Furthermore, due to the high volume of Latin@ neighbors (about 40% of their patrons), St. Thomas ensures that nearly every week that the pantry is open, at least one volunteer can speak Spanish.
Episcopal Charities visited last week to learn about a new endeavor at St. Thomas Church. Food of Life/Comida de Vida is committed to offering fresh fruits and vegetables to their neighbors and to that end, they are designing a community garden to be built on their grounds. We looked at the lot they’re planning to clear and seed for next spring, as well as a few existing beds that house herbs and flowers. Not only will this project enable the service of fresh produce on a weekly basis, it will also allow neighbors to participate in the gardening and further their sense of independence. St. Thomas Church is representative of many of the Basic Human Needs programs that Episcopal Charities funds outside the city. It is a small parish with a strong call to service addressing an unfilled need in its community. Without the pantry, hundreds of people in the surrounding county might go hungry, but the work of dedicated leaders and volunteers combined with the financial support of Episcopal Charities and other contributors allows them to continue their crucial mission.