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"Without Money and Without Cost"

Elderly women from a near-by senior low-income housing building sat at the back of our church foyer, bending over boxes overflowing with apples, carrots, and onions. They unrolled plastic produce bags, rubbed the top edges to open them, and filled them with fresh produce. They talked and laughed as they worked. “Come on over,” one of them called, “You need to meet someone we invited to join us today.” The ladies were getting ready for the monthly food pantry at our church and had asked someone new to help. 

Participants to have the dignity of selecting their own food.

When the Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church opened a food pantry, we aimed to create a pantry ministry that recognized that God created us to live in community and to bring the justice, mercy, and shalom of God to our community with the help of the Holy Spirit. We wanted to create an environment that encourages relationships among food pantry participants, volunteers, members of the congregation, and the broader community. To help with this, we chose a pantry model that allows participants to have the dignity of selecting their own food, including shelf-stable items, fresh produce, and hygiene items. 

We ask for their input when we make changes to the pantry. 

When the pantry is open, volunteers from the congregation work alongside volunteers from the community, including local high schools and middle schools, the Catholic church across the street, and several people who also receive food from the pantry. An outreach worker from our local department of health and human services talks with people who are looking for other assistance. We involve people who come to the pantry in local advocacy opportunities, and we ask for their input when we make changes to the pantry. 

The people who come to our pantry are there because of their individual life circumstances, but they also need food because of things that are beyond their control. One woman works as an aide at a rehab center and is supporting her disabled husband and her two grandchildren; one man is a janitor; another woman is a school bus driver. Median income for these types of occupations is less than $22,000 a year, but the overall median income in Montgomery County, Maryland, where most of our participants live, is over $103,000.  

Food assistance policies are changing.

In the last year, the number of people attending our pantry increased from 75 to 94 households per month. Food assistance policies are changing in ways that are cutting the number of eligible participants and reducing benefits to others. Immigrant parents are dropping out of or choosing not to apply for SNAP and WIC for their children because of confusing changes to immigration policies.* Other changes to food assistance programs have also been proposed, including changes to eligibility calculations that would decrease benefits for families who are eligible for SNAP and reduce the number of children who are eligible for school meals. According to Bread for the World, only 1 in 10 bags of food assistance is provided by nonprofit groups. Most food assistance comes from government programs, including SNAP, WIC, and school meal programs. As these benefits are reduced, though, the root causes of hunger remain and food pantries like ours are becoming even more critical in helping to feed the hungry and speaking up for those who are impacted by the changes.

People will no longer work without eating.

Those who have spent time in church and reading the Bible know that God calls us to feed the hungry, to take care of the material needs of the poor. Our visions of the new heaven and the new earth are visions of life without spiritual or physical hunger. We envision banquet tables overflowing with food set in the presence of God; we see people who are well nourished spiritually and physically. We believe that one day the Prince of Peace will return and “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign...over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness.” (Isaiah 9:7) People will no longer work without eating. (Isaiah 65: 21-22)

We have always aimed to be more than just a food pantry, and through our relationships with our community we can start to see that we begin to live in the new kingdom. The food we are handing out is nourishing bodies created by God and in God’s image. As the food goes out, so does God’s Spirit – encouraging and nudging all of us to see God’s provision in every part of our lives and causing us to yearn for the kingdom of God’s shalom.

God changed that morning into a humbling reminder of God’s kingdom.

This month we hosted a special pantry at a community resource fair organized by one of our state elected officials. I welcomed one man as he came into the room, and he walked around the tables and filled his bag. Then he came back to me. “How much do I pay?” he asked. “Pay?” I said, “No, this food is free.” “Free?” he said, a look of astonishment on his face. “Oh, thank you, thank you!” 

And with that simple conversation, God changed that morning into a humbling reminder of God’s kingdom: God’s grace is free. We have only to come and receive it. We are invited to “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Isaisah 55:1)

*SNAP and WIC are two Federal food security programs that are critical for supporting the health and development of children. Notably, most immigrants aren’t eligible for these programs - but their citizen children can receive benefits if their household meets income requirements.

Photo by nrd on Unsplash

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