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Ripple_avatar2 Combating the Root Causes of Food Insecurity, One Meal at a Time

The first time I attended a “manna” dinner at the Sweet Home United Methodist Church, I had a feeling I was experiencing something special and unique. Maybe it was the enthusiastic and warm greeting from “manna” volunteer Bob Hartsock who makes a point of talking to all newcomers (who on that day was me). Maybe it was the crowd gathering hours before the dinner, enjoying fresh coffee and lively conversations. Maybe it was the excellent stew and fresh salad. Or maybe it was Bob’s clear declaration: “we try to be much more than a soup kitchen.” Either way, as I chopped away preparing the salad, I found out all about the “manna” dinner and how a small congregation has such a profound impact on their community.

“Manna” is a free meal, now offered three times a week on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays serving low-income, homeless, fixed-income, and all others looking for good food and better company. The Sweet Home Emergency Ministries (SHEM), the local food bank, provides much of the donated food with other donations coming from area grocery stores, private individuals, and, thanks to a connection made at the Lebanon FEAST (Food Education Agriculture Solutions Together – a food organizing workshop created by Sharon Thornberry from the Oregon Food Bank), local schools.

The dinner began as a program of Sweet Home Emergency Ministries. Initially four separate churches provided volunteers for the kitchen crew for one meal each Friday. When three of the churches were unable to continue, there was serious concern about the future of the dinner. In response, the United Methodist Church’s men’s group decided that need for a free meal site was great enough that it couldn’t just go away. For the last six years not a Friday has been missed. And nowadays, the kitchen crew may have as many as five local churches represented in the volunteers.

“There is clearly a need in our community,” Bob explains, “to not only feed people physically, but also spiritually.” Which is exactly what the “manna” dinner does so well. In September of 2009, they served 289 plates, which is impressive for such a small congregation. Yet in a little over a year that number increased by nearly four times to 1006 plates in October of 2010. Much of this growth is credited to the inclusion of the school district as a donor. At the Lebanon FEAST the church found out that they were able to receive prepared food that was not put out on the line and offer it at the dinner – a perfect example of the importance of community food organizing. Seemingly overnight, the church was getting hundreds of pounds of food each month, which allowed for the addition of a third meal night (originally it was one night, then two, and now three). Cornerstone Fellowship provides volunteers for the third meal night on Wednesdays.

Growth means a few things. First and foremost is that more are being fed. But also maybe just as importantly, more are joining the “manna” community.

For years, Bob has been aware of the many homeless and low-income youth in and around Sweet Home who were in need of food, yet for whatever reason, weren’t taking advantage of “manna.” However, in the last few months more and more youth have discovered the dinner and are telling their friends. They’re starting to bridge the difficult divide that separates youth from emergency food services.

It could be the sense of community that brings people back, or it could be the wonderful food. The Tuesday and Friday cooking is under the very proficient direction of one of the many amazing volunteers, either Mary Brindle, Linda Rowton, Frann Luther, or Bonnie Healy. Mary is noted for her creative recipes taking a hodgepodge of ingredients and turning them into one delicious plate. All the chefs possess an amazing ability in putting together a meal when they know little about what they will be working with until it is picked up from the school or picked from the garden (the church also has a garden which supplies the meals with fresh produce throughout the summer and fall).

And amazingly, the dinner and garden is not all the United Methodist Church is working on. Nuts for Jesus is a program started when the church faced financial difficulties in repairing their steeple. Area filbert farmer, author, and church member Rod Fielder started Nuts for Jesus by donating 1,200 pounds of fresh hazelnuts, which the church then dried, packaged and sold to pay for the repairs. Since then, the proceeds from Nuts for Jesus have been used to pay for building maintenance, heating bills, and other costs associated with hosting “manna.”

“Manna” has evolved from its modest beginnings to being a real force in the community. Yet, the church is still not satisfied. “Our hope is that those who are eating the meals will take part in the cooking, serving and also gardening,” explains Rod. “That way we can fully achieve our goal of creating a “manna” community. Lots of folks know how to do for the poor…few know how to go about doing with the poor.”

It’s a lofty goal from a passionate and dedicated group. But if past success is any indication, they are right on their way to achieving it.

All over rural America, there are folks struggling to put food on their table. More importantly, the root causes of food insecurity are perpetuating the problem. Yet with effort and creativity, as shown by the members of the Sweet Home United Methodist Church, a small yet powerful group of people is working hard to combat these root causes, one meal at a time.

Spencer Masterson is a current participant of the RARE program and will be serving in Linn County, Oregon from September 2010 through August 2011. The Resource Assistance for Rural Environments' (RARE), an AmeriCorps program administered by the University of Oregon, mission is to increase the capacity of rural communities to improve their economic, social, and environmental conditions through the assistance of trained graduate-level participants who live and work in communities for 11 months. Visit RARE on Facebook.

See all posts by RARE Contributors.


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