As Hunger Rises, UMC Churches in Louisiana Respond

Mark Lambert
December 22, 2022

It is easy to think about providing unfortunate families with enough food to make the holidays a little brighter, but hunger and poverty do not start and end with the last two months of the year.
 
Local United Methodist Church congregations in the Louisiana Conference have helped feed the hungry for decades through food drives and food pantries. As the national economy hardens, volunteers at these food pantries are among the first to see how tough times hit families the hardest.
 
“Families are very, very needy,” said Theresa Sandifer of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. “They’re just one paycheck or disaster away from being homeless.”
 
Sandifer is the founder, organizer, and volunteer director of Shepherds Market, St. John’s food pantry that has been feeding the hungry since July 2012. On Saturday, Dec. 17, Sandifer and a group of 62 volunteers gave away 500 turkeys to families that had lined up early in the morning.


 
Sandifer was happy to brighten the holidays for those families, but she knows there are more who need help than she can reach. The need is growing as more middle class and working families slip down a rung on the economic ladder, forcing them to stretch their financial resources to the breaking point.
 
“A lot of people are downtrodden when they come in there,” she said. “Utilities are being turned off, they need rent deposits, cars to get fixed so they can keep working. It can be so devastating.”
 
The numbers back up Sandifer’s analysis. In 2021, Shepherds Market averaged serving about 340 families a month. In 2022, the number of people seeking help skyrocketed to about 500 families a month. In the first two weeks of December, Shepherds Market had served 321 families. And that doesn’t count the 500 turkeys.
 
This scenario is playing out across Louisiana as regional food banks, which serve as the primary source of food for pantries, struggle with the issues that everyone else is facing.
 
“You talk about the perfect storm, the worst timing; that’s where we are,” said Mike Manning, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. “Gasoline prices and inflation, those two factors are forcing people who got out of the food pantry line to go back in line. Plus, we have new people who are now in line, who also need help.”
 
Multiple issues, including shaky supply chains; the “narrowing of offers” from companies that used to provide free food to food banks; reduced financial contributions; and increased costs of procuring, shipping, and storing food, are squeezing food banks that supply places like Shepherds Market, Manning said. “It’s really a multi-pronged challenge for us and our agencies,” the food pantries.
 
But in the face of such challenges, Manning praised efforts like those of St. John's United Methodist Church and Shepherds Market, which is a “client choice” pantry, meaning people can pick out the food they want instead of being handed a bag of food that has been pre-selected.
 
“They do a tremendous job,” Manning said. “The client choice model makes it a little less demeaning to the client and a little more uplifting.”
 
St. John’s isn’t the only United Methodist Church in Louisiana answering the call. In Shreveport, Noel Memorial United Methodist Church is home to the largest food pantry in Northwest Louisiana, providing more than 6,000 bags of food a year to people in Caddo Parish.
 
“We are absolutely seeing an increase,” Director Mary Caldwell said. “People are coming back out since Covid shut everything down.”
 
For example, in November of 2021, Noel’s food pantry served 209 households representing 300 people. In November 2022, the pantry served 351 households representing 588 people.
 
To supplement the food pantry, Noel UMC parishioners donate food through a purple bag program, and neighboring Broadmoor United Methodist Church parishioners also contribute food donations through red bags.
 
Rev. Jo Ann Cooper of Gretna United Methodist Church was an associate pastor at Noel, and she took the purple bag idea with her when she was reassigned to the Jefferson Parish church. Even though Gretna UMC isn’t a large church, averaging about 100 worshippers on Sunday, their pantry feeds up to 4,000 people a year.
 
“The pantry is our lifeline. It is our identify, especially during (Hurricane) Ida,” Rev. Cooper said. “It is our anchor.”
 
The pantry “started out with someone just needing food” and turned into a twice weekly pantry, she said. Now the church distributes surplus from food bank on the first Saturday of each month.
 
Rev. Cooper said she has noticed recently that more people are visiting the food pantry. Simultaneously, the Second Harvest Food Bank, Gretna UMC’s main food supply, is facing higher demand with flat or declining resources, so the food bank is placing more restriction on the food pantries it serves.
 
Across the Mississippi River, in the French Quarter, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church does not have a food pantry, but the church feeds about 100 unhoused people each Sunday immediately after the 10:30 a.m. service. Rev. Ed Cooper (yes, he is Jo Ann’s husband) spoke of the traditional Christmas lunch the church served the Sunday before Christmas.
 
“It was a feast,” he said, describing the ham, mashed potatoes, turkey, and cranberry sauce. “We probably served 125 unhoused people that Sunday. We want that community to be a part of our worship service.”


 
Rev. Ed Cooper said St. Mark’s food ministry is exactly in line with the United Methodist Church tradition of “doing good.”
 
“It goes back to exactly what John Wesley envisioned,” he said. “Six days a week, Wesley was in the prisons. He invested his life in the poor, the unhoused of his day. It’s just living out what we were founded upon to do.”
 
Rev. Ed Cooper said St. Mark’s has provided this meal ministry for about 20 years. Its legacy is enshrined in a framed photograph of a parishioner from decades ago, when the church was faced with a malfunctioning pipe organ. Under the photo is a plaque with a quote from the parishioner that reads:
 
“When there are no more hungry people to feed in New Orleans, we will repair the organ.”
 
Today, the organ remains unrepaired.
 
To help feed the hungry in your community, please give generously to a food pantry or food bank in your area.
 
 
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