Henry Martinez

Food pantries get started in a variety of ways. For Spanaway Lutheran Church, it was when Lawanna Lee, founder and co-pastor of El Shaddai Christian Ministries in nearby Tacoma, Washington called to ask about the possibility of developing a partnership. Shortly after a visit to Tacoma, and approval from Spanaway’s congregational council, they were on their way to starting the Food for Families program. The congregation is one of 384 organizations addressing hunger and poverty to receive an ELCA World Hunger funded domestic hunger grant in 2014. Of those 384 organizations, 45 are receiving funds for food pantries.

One thing that makes Food for Families unique is that it is open on Sundays following the worship service. The congregation saw that opening the pantry on Sunday would serve a couple important needs. The first being the acknowledgment that hunger doesn’t rest. Spanaway Lutheran serves an area with a 16.3% poverty rate (numbers from 2012 census data). Other food pantries nearby are open Monday through Friday, but oftentimes during hours that are not the most convenient for families who have to work during the week.

According to congregation member and Food for Families director Edna Coonc, the congregation has served 250 families (about 1,200 people) in almost two years since the program started. Approximately 80% of the clients are families with children. The congregation purchases enough food for ten families each week (about 700 pounds of food) from El Shaddai Ministries, while also receiving donated food from the congregation. This allows them to serve fifteen families each week. The families can choose what they need for the week from a selection that includes meat, produce, pastries, and other staple items. Food for Families also benefits the before and after school education (BASE) ministry of the congregation, a program serving Kindergarten to 5th grade students.

The second reason for opening the pantry on Sunday is for community and the opportunity for fellowship that wouldn’t be available during the week. Coonc says, “We invite the people who come into the food shelf to stay for a cup of coffee. I’ve heard people say, ‘you guys aren’t judging us’ and ‘we don’t feel like you guys are pointing us out.'” This has provided the opportunity for relationships to develop where patrons of the food pantry have joined the congregation and become volunteers of the ministry. It requires a communal effort with congregation members giving financial and material donations as well as their time. Coonc reports that approximately 20 volunteers help keep the ministry going.

But the community aspect runs deeper than just getting bodies for a particular ministry. Pastor John Schier-Hanson feels that having the Food for Families pantry open on Sunday allows for something else to happen. He says, “Charity has become institutionalized in this country. The giver and receiver have become disconnected. But I think there is a redemptive quality for both giver and receiver to experience here— for the receiver it’s knowing that someone cares for them, for the giver it functions to feel they are not just giving to a cause, but to a person and family. It helps us realize that we are part of the same body. We’re all in this life together.”