By Lindsay Peyton

Fighting hunger has been a core focus for a number of churches in the Texas Annual Conference, long before COVID-19 increased the need tenfold. Now, post-pandemic, a number of challenges, including higher costs at the grocery store and tighter family budgets, has placed increasing strain on food-relief agencies.

Congregations with food pantries are stepping up to fill the gaps. With more clients and greater needs, they are getting the word out about how to donate and volunteer, making the greatest positive impact in the community.

Bear Creek UMC joins with other congregations to help neighbors

At Bear Creek UMC in northwest Houston, hundreds of boxes are being filled with Thanksgiving goodies for the annual Share the Table event on Nov. 11. The traditional boxes contain stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy mix, while the Latin flair packages feature masa and hominy. Both include a $10 grocery store gift certificate, hot cocoa, cake mix and icing. Children’s coats and books will also be distributed. “It’s all to help the holiday be a bit more special,” said food pantry manager Jeanie Borawski.

The food pantry is run by nonprofit MESA OUTREACH, a consortium of 11 partner churches. Each congregation holds regular drives in their lobbies to keep shelves stocked. The Houston Food Bank donates perishable items. Janet Balboni, president and chairman of the board for MESA, is also a member of Bear Creek UMC, where the nonprofit rents a portable building to house its food pantry.

She explained that the group formed in 2009 to address a number of needs in the community. The food pantry became its main focus during the pandemic. And the demand has only become more urgent since. “The need has gone up incredibly,” Balboni said. “In 2023, we even had to change our food service model because the need is so overwhelming.”

The pantry had to limit its service to certain zip codes. In addition, families now make appointments to receive monthly distributions instead of waiting in line. “Everyone was aware of the need at the beginning of the pandemic,” Balboni said. “People may think things might be better now. But the need is as high if not higher.” At the same time, donations have decreased. “The need is up and the supply is down,” Balboni said.

Borawski believes that higher costs at the grocery store are leading to fewer donations. “You just get hit on both sides,” she said. “The need isn’t going down. I get calls every day, and we try to help whoever we can manage. But we could really use help – more food and more volunteers.”

Currently, about 800 families are served each month. Borawski said most are dealing with underemployment. “The benefits they might get just don’t go as far,” she said. “They’re working as hard as they can, but they just can’t make enough.”  Borawski hopes that people consider holiday giving, as well as year-round support. “It’s so important to help,” she said. “We have tons of volunteer opportunities.”

Community wide ripple effect supports Montgomery UMC

The Montgomery UMC Food Pantry has experienced such phenomenal growth since 2021 that the organizers are currently strategizing the best way forward.

“We want to manage it well so we can continue to serve,” the pantry committee director Jessica Payne Miller said. “It’s heavy on our hearts to do this. We’re all super passionate about it.”

When she started in January, she said, “There were a small number of families that would come to the church.” Now, there are hundreds of cars in the parking lot for distributions, which are the first and third Fridays and Saturdays each month. The number of clients served has risen from an average of 142 families to 500 families each month.

Montgomery UMC partners with the Montgomery County Food Bank to purchase items for the pantry at a significantly discounted rate. Payne Miller said that the pantry orders about 8,000 pounds of food each month. The church is able to stretch any dollars directly donated to the church for the cause, she explained.

“We get a lot of donations from our congregation – and I mean a lot,” Payne Miller said. “We’re a small church, and the amount of food they bring is just insane. It’s such a blessing.”

The community at large has also joined in the effort. For instance, the theater department at Montgomery ISD recently hosted “Trick or Treat So Kids Can Eat” on Halloween – collecting 2,000 pounds of food to donate to the pantry. “It completely restocked our shelves,” Payne Miller said.

The local HEB and Kroger stores are regular donors – and even Starbucks brings leftover pastries to the pantry. “There’s really been a ripple effect in our community,” Payne Miller said.

She believes that the increase in clients at the food pantry is tied to the expanding population in the area. “There’s a tremendous amount of growth in this area,” she said.

Payne Miller is also confident that clients come to Montgomery UMC’s Food Pantry because of the quality of service. “We know every single one of our clients,” she said. “We can tell you about their families, about their struggles and what they pray for. They might pull up to the pantry for the first time feeling shame to be there. But by the time they leave, they don’t feel that way at all. They feel loved, encouraged and supported.”

Feeding Our Father’s Sheep at Abiding Faith UMC

Before launching their food pantry, members of Abiding Faith UMC in south Houston had been participating in the Houston Food Bank’s Backpack Buddy program – giving children prepared bags of food to take home on weekends or holidays – since 2009.

“We saw the impact,” Barbara Carter said. “The kids were so excited about getting their packs every week.”  She approached Pastor Deborah Vaughn and asked, “if there was something else we could do to help – not just on weekends and not just the kids, but the whole family,” Carter recalled. “Pastor Deborah immediately told me to go for it.”

Carter called the Houston Food Bank and set up a meeting. In August 2018, Abiding Faith opened ABBA’s Food Pantry – named in honor of Our Father.  “This is what Our Father was telling us to do,” Carter explained. The same year it launched, ABBA’s was named “Food Pantry of the Year” by the Houston Food Bank.

“It was very much needed in our area,” Carter said. “Our church is in a food desert. A lot of our clients don’t have transportation to get to the nearest store. So, this was needed – and it still is.”

The demand has only increased over the years. Carter said that about 100 to 150 clients, coming from all zip codes in the area, are served each week. The pantry is open on the second and fourth Wednesday and Saturday of each month. Since the last distribution, Carter has registered 25 new names. “We get an influx of people every time we open,” she said.

Currently, the pantry operates in one room in the church. Carter hopes that the outreach program can move into the empty parsonage. “If we could renovate that space, we would be able to accommodate all of the needs,” she said.

The church would need funding and volunteers to make the space suitable, Carter said.  Her personal inspiration for the food bank came after seeing a portrait of Jesus sitting in a pasture among sheep. “I saw it and couldn’t move,” Carter recalled. “At the bottom, it read, ‘Feed my sheep.’ When I went back to my room, I just wept. I asked, ‘God what do you want me to do?’” Starting the food pantry was the answer. “I believe that’s what we’re doing at ABBA’s Pantry, feeding Our Father’s sheep,” Carter said.

Church member Deborah Estes said that about 388 family members are served each week. With increasing costs of groceries and gas, more people are in need, she added. “The lines are getting longer,” she said.

Volunteering at ABBA’s Pantry has been a rewarding experience, Estes added. “The community we have come through, they’re just so supportive,” she said. “It warms my heart to see them excited about what they receive. It’s just a privilege to be able to help those in need.” Her husband Clarence Estes will be taking over as the pantry coordinator in January. “I just want to continue what Babara has started,” he said. “There’s definitely a need for this.”