Pew Catholics take command to feed the hungry seriously

Two bologna sandwiches, fruit and a snack cake or cookies are included in the more than 100 daily sack lunches provided to persons headed to work or out of work by St. Bernard Parish in Akron, Ohio. Coffee and juice is also provided. (Photo courtesy of the St. Bernard Bag Lunch Program)
This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

Be they called food banks, soup kitchens, food pantries, hot soup outreaches, brown bag ministries or caring cafés, programs that provide nutrition and goodwill are headed by parishes across the nation.

St. Bernard Parish in Akron, Ohio, for example, sponsors an extraordinarily active three-pronged ministry to provide food for the homeless, poor and lonely.

Its Hot Meals Program dishes up more than 1,000 evening dinners every month. An average of about 240 dine in the parish social hall on the third, fourth and occasional fifth Wednesdays and Sundays. Volunteers undergo a special orientation "to learn the ins and outs of the program," organizers explained, noting that students sometimes work with the program to earn school service credits.

Every month, the Akron parish's Pantry Program also supplies more than 300 households with a three-day supply of non-perishable groceries -- and household supplies when available.

Thirdly, St. Bernard's Bag Lunch Program provides more than 2,000 sack lunches every month for persons going to work or out-of-work. Volunteers arrive early to make the bagged lunches and coffee available Monday through Friday from 8:30-9:30 a.m.

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"It really is something I look forward to," said Pam O'Neill who has been part of the St. Bernard ministry "for at least 28 years" and currently coordinates the Bag Lunch Program which "serves an average [of] 110 people five days a week." 

"We pass the lunch bags through the window and then they can take it with them or eat in our lunchroom," she explained. With donations augmented by other local parishes, the lunch sacks include "two bologna sandwiches, fruit and a snack cake or cookies. ... They also get coffee and juice and a warm place to socialize. We also give socks, hats and gloves when we have them."

She has seen "some of the same people for a long time, for almost as long as I have been there. We have grown old together."

Two things have been constants during the ministry's 35-year history, O'Neill observed. "We are always in critical financial need, and ... the need has remained consistent. Our programs still address a big need in our community with the homeless and poor."

O'Neill started volunteering "when my kids were young and I needed an outlet. My pastor said, 'I know what you can do,' and so ever since I have been involved. There is a satisfaction in knowing nobody has to go hungry, that they can come to us and at least get something to eat once a day. This is dear to my heart."

"As Pope Francis says, 'Take care of God's creation. But above all, take care of people in need.' That is what we try to do on a daily basis when we serve our less fortunate friends," she said.

The entirely volunteer outreach's annual budget exceeds $90,000 which is met through donations and some grants.

More than 2,000 miles to the west, much the same is accomplished by Feed the Hungry, a program launched by St. Mary Parish in Aberdeen, Wash., more than three decades ago. Today, Feed the Hungry provides hot lunches to an average of 70 guests six days per week.

Managed by parishioner Jane Mezera for 18 years, the program outgrew the parish itself so Catholic Community Services was contacted for help. In 2002, Catholic Community Services took the reins, although St. Mary remains the location where meals are offered on weekdays. Sunday meals are held at the Aberdeen Methodist Church.

Nearly 50 volunteers staff the effort, Feed the Hungry coordinator Cher Keller told NCR, including students from nearby Grays Harbor College and local high schools.

Another long-standing ministry to the hungry has deep roots in St. Leo Parish in Sonoma, Calif. Well-known by locals, the Brown Baggers program was founded there in the late 1990s, largely by Elizabeth Kemp, as an outreach to vineyard workers. Now in her 80s, Kemp is still active in the group.

Volunteers gather at St. Leo two days per week to craft thousands of burritos and deliver them to multiple sites in the Sonoma Valley. 

Now operating under the non-profit wing of Sonoma Overnight Support, the Brown Baggers have expanded to oversee two weekly sit-down meals for individuals who are homeless and/or on a limited income — Wednesday lunches at the Sonoma Valley Grange Hall and Friday dinners at La Luz Center in the Boyes Hot Springs area.

In all, more than 300 volunteers participate.

Interestingly, the Wednesday meals are prepared and staffed alternatingly by different faith communities -- St. Leo, Faith Lutheran, Shir Shalom, and St. Andrew Presbyterian. 

Sonoma* Overnight Support president Cindy Vrooman lauded Kemp and Brown Baggers "for serving as a bridge, for connecting a lot of churches -- and people with no church -- to help feed the hungry."

Vrooman called attention to Francis' impact.

"The discussion around making burritos" often includes talk about the pope, she said, "not by just Catholics, but everyone. He has really helped unite us, to help give us a common language and common discussions. He really has been a breath of fresh air, and it (provides) a feeling like we really are doing the right thing."

St. Leo's St. Vincent de Paul Society's chapter is also active in securing foodstuffs for those in need, including a food pantry.

*A previous version of this story misspelled Sonoma.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR's West Coast correspondent. His email is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]


Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" is NCRonline's newest blog series, covering life in Catholic parishes across the United States. The title comes from the words of Pope Francis: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. ... And you have to start from the ground up."

"The Field Hospital" blog will run twice weekly on NCRonline.org along with feature stories and news reports about parish life in the U.S. If you have a story suggestion, send it to Dan Morris-Young (dmyoung@ncronline.org) or Peter Feuerherd (pfeuerherd@ncronline.org).


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