Food for the Soul - A Food Pantry Story

The following is an account of how Schweitzer United Methodist Church started a crisis food pantry, how it became a pantry for those in chronic poverty, and how and why it returned to its original mission. 

Food for the Soul - A Food Pantry Story

Schweitzer United Methodist Church, Springfield, Missouri began an active food pantry ministry in 2003. In the beginning the pantry operated out of a small closet near its gymnasium. It served about 300 persons in its first year. Most of its disbursable food came from donations from the congregation. Its vision was to be a point of connecting with those who were in some sort of crisis. The vision of being a crisis pantry was congruent with another ministry at Schweitzer at the time, an Emergency Response team. The Emergency Response team was organized to deal with natural disasters. The two ministries complimented one another and sought to address needs that arose from crises’. Both ministries were led and staffed by volunteers. 

Through unique relationships and with relocation to a new spatial context  in 2010, the Food Pantry began to spread out and its reach expanded. It moved from a small closet to having about 6,000 square feet of space for storage and distribution. As space expanded so did capacity and the number of people who came to the doors. Through an organic model the ministry grew exponentially. It was not long before 70% of the guests visited more than once a year. A majority visited ever four months. Guests were given cards that indicated the next month they could return for another visit. What had begun as a crisis pantry had migrated to a pantry serving chronic issues of food supply.

The growth in visitors was exponential. In 2003 the pantry served 300 persons. In 2014 that number had expanded to 16,816.  The value of the food that was distributed through Schweitzer was estimated to be $231,000. Additionally, Schweitzer shared about $160,000 worth of food items with partner pantries and organizations in Springfield. 

The value of cash donations and food donations from Schweitzer members reached $80,000. Friends Against Hunger supplied $20,000 dollars worth of pre-packaged rice and bean meals. Food brokers, warehouses, grocery vendors, and partnering pantries contributed the remaining $291,000. The capacity to supply those who came to the door had grown to match the “need”.

The growth of the pantry ministry was celebrated. We saw an increasing number of people being served; those who came received food. Many who came were happy to receive prayer and items of spiritual support. We celebrated our increasing capacity to handle and distribute food to other pantries. We celebrated the increasing number of volunteers who served through the pantry. We celebrated that people of all ages, from youth to those in their nineties, could find a place to serve. We celebrated our collaborative connections in the community that enabled the need to be met. We celebrated that we continued to improve our processes, the environment, and the experience of those who entered the pantry. We honored all who entered the pantry as persons made in the image of God. We had much to celebrate.

As we began to take a closer look at how we could improve the pantry, we began to notice what we were not celebrating – transformed lives. People who visited seldom made a participatory connection to the church. We were not seeing people move out of a place of need. We were a part of their patchwork puzzle of subsistence groceries. Instead of transforming the world – our mission statement, we were handing out a lot of fish for a day. Through the lens of self-assessment and some pertinent writings we began to see our growth was contributing to toxic charity. At the end of the day our help was continuing and contributing to the cycle of poverty. We felt great, but those who came, visited and left would come back again, retelling their story that leveraged sympathy for a scarce amount of resources. Both givers and recipients were missing all that God had made them to be. We had to step off the chronic treadmill for the wholeness and holiness of everyone.

In the fall of 2013 a journey began with a small group of people pulled together for a Skunkworks Project (see Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program). The objective was to pivot our ministries of mercy to works of transformation. The experience of the food pantry was our starting point. The Skunkworks team began to learn and gain an understanding of poverty, of the people who were accessing our pantry, of the difference between toxic charity and help that contributes to growth. A key learning we came across helped by defining a helpful response into three areas: relief, rehabilitation, and development. We dedicated ourselves to returning the food pantry to its original mission – that of relief, or crisis; while at the same time establishing on-ramps to rehabilitation and development. 

In the fall of 2014, with a clearer understanding of what we had become, and where we needed to move, a new team of people began wrestling with the challenge of shifting the Pantry to an entry point for those who are in crisis, who need immediate relief. Over the course of six months the team charted out a path of change that was implemented April 6, 2015. 

Returning the Pantry to a Crisis mode means the end of telling people that they can return in 4 months for more groceries. It means an end to brief questions, document validation, and prayer being the only spiritual engagement. It means the end of celebrating larger numbers of people served and larger dollar values of groceries going out the door. 

It does mean the following:
·      Everyone who enters the food pantry will be greeted as a welcome guest
·      Everyone who visits on their first time will be welcomed into a conversation (interview) in which strengths, abilities, and needs will be explored. We will not assume people are coming only for food. Our disposition will be toward relationship. Scripts have been written and volunteers are undergoing training to move in this direction.
·      First time guests who indicate food is a need will be blessed with food, in a similar fashion as before the change. They will also be invited to visit with a prayer team member who will engage in conversation and pray alongside them if they wish. 
·      First time guest will also be made aware that the pantry at Schweitzer is for crisis situations (defining a crisis has been a hard task). Guests will find us open and ready to engage in times of crisis. 
·      First time quests will be made aware of the several opportunities for growth and invited to step into deeper relationships. The opportunities for growth include joining a group to experience healthy cooking, a Bible for beginners class, an intro to Money group, and a Jobs For Life (JfL) cohort. These classes, especially the JfL cohort are pathways into deeper relationship with others, with oneself, and with God.
·      Second time guests will be greeted and warmly welcomed.
·      Second time guests will be welcomed into a conversation about their arrival at Schweitzer. 
·      If a Second time guest (and all subsequent visits) is in a crisis a weeks worth of food will be provided. A guest in crisis does not have to wait a certain amount of time to return. 
·      If a Second time guest is not in a state of crisis (a determination made by the interviewer), they will be invited to join us in one or more of our additional groups/venues. Entering these other tracks will be met with relationship and a brief supply of food staples. 
·      Second time guests who choose not to enter a fruitful path will be blessed and invited to return at any time when they would like, especially if they are in a crisis situation.

The Pantry is a significant ministry with many volunteers. A major challenge is developing buy-in from volunteers as we move away from a traditional food pantry model to a crisis pantry.  Many volunteers are wrestling with the shift. Three key sticking points have been raised during the change and implementation process:
1.     What is the definition of a crisis? The Food Pantry Improvement team has been compiling a list of events that indicate a crisis. It is imagined that the conversations with the guests themselves will be a source of definition – how do our guests define a crisis? What is not a crisis is “more month left at the end of the month than money” – that is a money management issue.
2.     Who is going to host deeper conversations? Previous verbal interactions were brief.  Conversations centered around statistics, eg. number of people in the home. New conversations will center around a life narrative that seeks to highlight gifts and abilities as it also hears about roadblocks. Good listening and discernment skills are going to be invaluable. The first response is to hire a half-time trainer/interviewer. This person is going to recruit and train a team of volunteers to host relational conversations. 
3.     What about the elderly? How will the elderly population living at the margins be received at the pantry? A small sample of demographics revealed that a small percentage of visitors to the pantry fit this classification. A good and precise plan has not been put into place. We are engaging a new software application that will give us a better understanding of our overall demographics and provide data points as we move forward. 

The future for the Schweitzer Food Pantry is one of greater hospitality, engagement, and an invitation to a journey of life together. We hope and pray, study and work anticipating good seeds will be planted that will bring forth transformation of lives and our community. We look forward to celebrating an increasing number of people moving from recipients in need, to stewards of a good and beautiful community. 


The Schweitzer Food Pantry is operated by Schweitzer United Methodist Church, Springfield, Missouri. On the web at  By Jason Leininger, Executive Pastor. Edited, 2016 October.

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