COLUMBIA — A sack of groceries in one hand and a Bible in the other was how some Columbia churchgoers at First Presbyterian Church came to worship this week.
For the past two weeks, the church has been handing out empty grocery bags to their members and encouraging them to bring them back filled with food to benefit the Central Missouri Food Bank.
To volunteer or donate to the Central Missouri Food Bank Pantry, call 474-1020 or 800-764-3663.
Janet Brandt, a member of the church, said the church’s location downtown serves as a reminder about the hunger problem in mid-Missouri which encouraged her to donate. “I think it’s a great way for people to serve their community,” she said.
The food drive is part of the nationwide Souper Bowl of Caring that many Columbia churches have participated in in the past.
The nationwide event is a nonprofit religious organization that utilizes “Super Bowl weekend to mobilize youth to fight hunger and poverty in their local communities,” according to the organization’s Web site.
The event started in 1990 in Columbia, S.C., as a 22-church effort that raised about $5,000.
In 2007, the organization raised more than $8 million in cash and food, according to an annual report.
In Columbia, 24 churches are participating in the event this year.
The proceeds of each church’s efforts are donated to a charity selected by the churches.
As in past years, First Presbyterian Church chose to donate to the Central Missouri Food Bank. As of Jan. 24, it had raised $537.18. This does not include the majority of the donations that were collected Sunday.
First Presbyterian Church’s efforts have stuck out to the food bank’s executive director Peggy Kirkpatrick during her 16-year tenure.
“They have been consistently doing this for years,” she said.
Members of the church said the food bank’s willingness to meet the needs of those in living in poverty in the community is what makes it a worthy cause.
“One of the real attractive things about this congregation for us is its sense of mission and social justice,” Hank Landry, a long-time church member, said.
The food bank is a hunger relief organization that distributes free food to 145 agencies across 33 counties, according to its Web site.
While most food banks across the country charge their member agencies a 10- to 20-cent fee per pound of food, the Central Missouri Food Bank is “one of only five in the country that give away all our food for free,” Kirkpatrick said.
Sandy Rikoon, a professor of rural sociology and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at MU, said the food bank’s policies are what sets it apart from government-sponsored programs. Most federal and state programs require participants to meet stringent age and need guidelines in order to receive assistance. The food pantry’s unique policy of free food distribution allows it to give away food to a much larger population of those who don’t meet government requirement but still need food assistance.
“One of the best things about the food pantries is that they don’t judge the people about their need,” he said.
Despite the food bank’s success, Kirkpatrick said meeting the needs of those in the community is becoming more difficult.
According to data from the USDA Economic Research Service, 18.3 percent of the population in Boone County is living in poverty.
However, Kirkpatrick said this number doesn’t accurately represent the number of people who need food assistance because of how the government defines poverty.
“When you look at the poverty level defined by the government — that’s $20,000 for a family of four — that’s pretty low,” she said.
In addition, over the past year, the food pantry location for the food bank has seen an increase in the number of people it is feeding on a monthly basis.
“What we are seeing is more and more working poor,” Kirkpatrick said. The pantry has seen the average number of individuals it serves per month increase from 5,500 people in 2006 to 7,100 people in 2007.
The problem is simple to church member Dennis Dierker.
“As the economy gets worse, hunger gets worse,” he said.
Landry said it’s this community’s need that compelled him to donate food.
“This is a small way we can help out here,” he said.
While it may seem like a small amount to Landry, it is donations like his and others in the faith-based community that are allowing the food bank to continue to operate.
“I am a great believer in the power of people,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s each of one of us looking at a neighbor-in-need and doing something about it.”
When she hears talk of a possible recession, Kirkpatrick says it’s her faith and the spirit of local faith-based communities, such as First Presbyterian, that keep her optimistic.
“I just pray more,” she said.