By Susan Dal Porto
In the midst of any community in the United States in 2017, hunger looms as a widespread but very often invisible problem. Data indicates that 1 in 5 children and 1 in 10 families are food insecure – wondering where their next meal might be coming from or having to choose between paying a bill, getting medical help or putting a healthy meal on the table.
The federal government does provide supplemental food assistance for people living below the poverty line ($24,600 for a family of 4). But there are gaps. The loss of a job, a medical emergency, death, divorce can all create a crisis in the families and home of working people. Often at risk are seniors on fixed incomes.
For these reasons, the Community Food Pantry at Roselle United Methodist Church organized three years ago under the leadership of Vicki Johnson, a former registered nurse, and insurance executive. Vicki encountered the hunger gap in a very personal way when a back injury from years of hard physical labor doing bedside nursing forced her to go on disability. Her income was dramatically slashed, challenging her to make altered means stretch to cover her expenses.
“My passion to help feed the hungry grew out of my own frustrations with trying to access any services while I was on disability,” said Vicki.
Vicki was tending her garden plot when another gardener encouraged her to talk with the pastor at Roselle UMC who shared the same passion. Two months later, the pantry opened.
“I wanted a place that treated people with dignity and respect,” said Vicki.
When clients walk in, they’re greeted with coffee and pastries. They fill out a shopping form for canned goods and a variety of choices of meat. They then walk into a bright, clean room with quaint red awnings, grocery carts and stands filled with a multitude of fresh produce, loaves of bread, milk, and juices.
“It’s the Cadillac of food pantries. They have everything!” said Diane, a Roselle resident who visits the pantry monthly to help feed her and her 35-year old disabled son. “There’s not a lot of income coming in so this pantry is a real relief.”
The pantry expanded into rooms in the church that were no longer in active use and now feeds 200 individuals a month, including 60 children in the Village of Roselle. The church’s pastor, Rev. Melissa Hood has voiced an audacious vision for this ministry: “Our goal is to end hunger in Roselle.”
Bill Richmond is retired on a fixed income and a cancer survivor. He says the pantry has been a Godsend. “A lot of money is going out for medical bills,” said Richmond, a Roselle resident who is now considering joining the church. “The food I receive really helps and I can’t say enough about the people here. They’ve been a real blessing in my life.”
This United Methodist Church is now the focal point for feeding ministries in this community. The pantry has spun off a free community meal once a month and has also galvanized the work of nearly 70 volunteers who sort donations, work with clients, and track inventory. The congregation of Roselle United Methodist Church provides volunteers, donations, and space at the church for the pantry to operate. But more broadly, the pantry has also become a rallying effort for other organizations in the area. Locally, Lutheran and Catholic churches, as well as Cub Scouts, the local police department, schools, elected government officials, and area businesses regularly donate and send teams of volunteers to help at the pantry. The church pantry, working with five local retailers, has also recovered 88,706 pounds of food or 73,921 meals so far this year.
There is a stigma for many to admit they are hungry and so they struggle with hard choices and stay silent about it, sacrificing well-balanced, nutritious meals. On a recent Saturday when the Food Pantry was open, a new family with young children came for the first time. The family was nervous, and a bit embarrassed to ask for help. When they went to a room filled with many choices of fresh produce that come from area donors – Mariano’s, Jewel, Walmart as well as vegetables grown by the local garden club and master gardeners – the mother, humbled by her circumstances but overwhelmed with the bounty of food offered to her family, collapsed in tears. One of the pantry volunteers held the mother’s hand and offered to pray with her. The pantry from the beginning has sought to offer not only physical sustenance but spiritual support as well. Pastor Melissa reminds the congregation and the pantry volunteers “there is no shame in being hungry.”
Growing up in Maywood, Ill., in the 60s, Vicki recalls how neighbors looked after one another and if there was a vacant lot, someone would grow a garden to share the harvest with others in need. “We didn’t wait for some governmental agency to step in. We took care of one another,” said Vicki. “That’s what I want us to be. The church that takes care of our neighbors.”
September has been designated by Feeding America as well as local area Food Banks and participating pantries as Hunger Action Month. To learn more about the problem of hunger in our midst, visit www.feedingamerica.org. For more information on the Roselle Food Pantry visit www.roselleumc.org.