Bridging the Food Gap
The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration is located at the intersection of Spring Valley and Hillcrest roads, in a prosperous section of north Dallas. Nearby homes sell in the million-dollar range, so at first glance it seems an odd place for a food pantry that gives free groceries to the poor.
But nestled in the fringes and hidden by high-rises and freeways resides what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls a “food desert” where affordable nutritious food is hard to obtain, particularly for those without a car. Many of these low-income families live within walking distance of the church in rental homes and apartments, but not within walking distance of a grocery store.
The ’Fig’s outreach committee learned these demographics during a meeting with the North Texas Food Bank, which had created a map illustrating the large geographic expanse of food insecurity. The committee realized that running a full-fledged food pantry was a larger project than the church was equipped to handle, but they wanted to help so they joined with Crossroads Community Services and became a distribution partner along with about 80 other organizations.
Crossroads acts as a mini-food bank for groups too small or not suited to be a North Texas Food Bank agency. This network enables small organizations to offer improved quality and quantity of food to people in their neighborhoods. The group gives a variety of nutritious foods, such as fresh produce, that provide the foundation for preparing 21 balanced meals per person.
Crossroads has requirements for its partners. There must be space set aside for the distribution center; a freezer and refrigerator designated for the use of the project; a governing board for the project, which has to be sponsored by a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization; and enough volunteers to staff the pantry. Requirements for volunteers include training for civil rights and safe food handling.
When the outreach committee approached the new rector, the Rev. Casey Shobe, with their idea, his immediate response was “yes, yes, yes!” And when an evening meeting was called to gauge parish interest, more than eighty people attended.
Initially, the church decided to provide food to families from a neighborhood school, Spring Valley Elementary, where the counselors and staff identified “backpack kids,” who were given food by the school to carry home in their backpacks every Friday. The school staff contacted these families, all of them Spanish speakers who would normally have no contact with the members of an Episcopal church. Transfiguration has nurtured the relationship with this school, providing volunteers to several programs.
The food distribution project started small, and growth has been gradual, and it’s not easy gaining trust. To get the aid, a poor family has to overcome ethnic, linguistic, economic, and religious gaps. One woman arrived bearing tracts from her own church just to let everyone know know she wasn’t going to be converted.
Volunteers do what they can to make everyone comfortable, and there are no religious requirements for participation. One of the church’s parishioners is from Peru, and is able to translate. Several others speak some Spanish, which also helps. The relationships are growing deeper. Those in need who initially came with great caution and uncertainty now arrive bearing treats and Christmas cards for the volunteers, expressing gratitude. And some come with hugs—those are the best.
As of this writing, the ‘Fig provides food once a month to forty-two people in fourteen families. They encompass singles, elderly adults, single moms and large families. Each family gets a week’s worth of groceries for each person.
The program requires that the church only use groceries from Crossroads and the North Texas Food Bank. The food is purchased for twelve cents a pound, whether it is canned goods, produce, staples, meat or poultry. It’s a great bargain and leverages a small investment into a lot of food.
But the parish is always on the lookout for ways to help in other ways. A drive for non-food items brought in toilet paper, toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, lotions, diapers—the kinds of items bought at the supermarket anyway. With the arrival of fall, parishioners gave school supplies for the children, from a list provided by Spring Valley Elementary.
And for Christmas gifts, a list was created of “want” and “need” for each child. Church members’ response was overwhelming and within two hours, they had signed up to buy two gifts for each child.
Recently, another outreach ministry at Transfiguration joined the food pantry. The Clothes Horse is the church’s re-sale shop of gently-used clothes. But pantry clients can now obtain several items of their choice every month at no charge. The Clothes Horse volunteers have also set up a room across the hall from the pantry, filled with racks of clothing.
When the parish was surveyed at the start of a recent rector search process, outreach was one of the main concerns voiced. With the enthusiastic support of both the clergy and the laity, parishioners are finding out anew what it means to care for their neighbors.