Local churches and faith-based nonprofit agencies are taking advantage of a temporary emergency federal food program to help needy families affected by the coronavirus economic slowdown.
Recent months have left many farms with massive surpluses of food that they have not been able to sell due to decreased demand and food processing capacity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box Program was designed to use that surplus to support the work of food banks and community and faith-based nonprofits. It provides funds to allow them to buy up the surplus and use it to help people in need. Locally, these USDA food boxes are being distributed through The Outreach Center, the Oak Hill Food Pantry and Burkemont Baptist Church.
» Oak Hill Food Pantry
The Oak Hill Food Pantry is a ministry of Oak Hill United Methodist Church in Morganton. The Rev. Paul McClure, pastor of Oak Hill UMC, learned about the USDA program in May.
“I contacted The Outreach Center,” McClure said. “One step led to another, and we are very grateful to be included in this ministry.”
The food pantry has operated on a monthly basis since 1994. In June, however, the increased need, as well as the increased food supply, helped the pantry move to a once-a-week model. Since that time, McClure reports that they have served 83 different families in the Oak Hill area.
“When we say once a week, we mean that a household can come by every week,” McClure said. “We just need them to call ahead and get an appointment, so we know how many food boxes we will need to share each Wednesday.”
The church is exploring the possibility of forming partnerships with local agencies and farmers so it can continue to offer fresh meat and produce after the USDA funding is exhausted.
“We’re hoping we’ll get through August and maybe even into September,” McClure said. “It’s a week-by-week matter. We just don’t know how long this funding will last.”
» Burkemont Baptist Church
Every Tuesday morning, the parking lot of Burkemont Baptist Church transforms into a food distribution hub. A truckload of USDA food arrives from Baptists on Mission, an all-volunteer poverty and disaster relief ministry of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. For the next hour, volunteers from local churches and youth groups begin unloading and sorting the delivery.
More than 15,000 pounds of food is being transported each day to churches like Burkemont all over western North Carolina, according to Gary Clark, one of the volunteer leaders of Baptists on Mission.
“Because of the virus, a lot of people are homebound or out of work,” Clark said. “We want to get this food distributed to as many people as possible.”
Burkemont’s distribution site is overseen by the Rev. Dr. Eddy Bunton, minister of student ministries. Each week, volunteers divide the 295 boxes of food between 16 Burke County churches, as well several other churches from neighboring counties.
“The nice thing about this is that it’s not just a Baptist or even a Burke County thing,” Bunton said. “There is a Methodist Church and a few others, as well as nine churches from outside of the county that are coming to get boxes to bring back to their communities.”
» The Outreach Center
Tuesday evening’s post on The Outreach Center’s Facebook page communicates the mixture of gratitude, uncertainty and near-exhaustion that staffers and volunteers have felt over the past several weeks.
“In the 20-year history of The Outreach Center, there has never been a time like this,” the post reads. “Today (Tuesday, July 21), we assisted over 3,000 families with food. Our amazing staff and volunteers withstood heat, lightning, rain and fatigue.”
Since May, the Farmers to Families Food Box program has allowed the center to expand its monthly food distribution to a weekly program. At the same time, the number of families showing up for help has exploded.
“Over the last month, we’ve served over 6,000 families,” said Bianca Moses, director of community relations for The Outreach Center. “We will probably exceed that number this month.”
The increased load is taking its toll on the center’s staff and volunteers.
“We’ve had several new volunteers join us in recent months, but we desperately need more,” Moses said. “It’s hard work and, so far, it’s been the hottest July in 80 years. It’s been crazy.”
In addition to their massive weekly distributions, the ministry also provides USDA food to several churches and nonprofits throughout Burke County.
“We distribute food to St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, New Hope Baptist, Mount Sinai Baptist, Christ-Centered Recovery Program, Vessels of Mercy and various other nonprofits,” Moses said. “We also give food to (the Department of Social Services) and the AIDS Leadership Foothills Area Alliance.”
Those interested in volunteering at The Outreach Center can sign up via their Facebook page.
To set up an appointment with the Oak Hill food pantry, call 828-475-2490.
For more information about volunteering at Burkemont Baptist’s food distribution site, call the church office at 828-437-2357.
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