COLUMBIA — The parking lot was filled with cars and the occasional small knot of friends catching up in the Saturday morning sunshine. Inside the building, a diverse group of shoppers made their way along a predetermined path, picking up their food for the week, an errand many people run every Saturday morning.
As they arrived at the checkout, the shoppers were greeted by a smiling volunteer working behind a folding table heaped with colorful coupons. But this was no grocery store — it was the Christian Life Center at Broadway Christian Church. For these shoppers and those who served them, it wasn't just another Saturday morning in Columbia; it was Angel Food Saturday.
Regular box - $30
1.5 lb New York strip steak
3 lb. IQF split chicken breast
2 lb. baby back pork ribs
2 lb. chicken chunks
28 oz. jumbo charbroiled beef patties with gravy
1 lb. smoked sausage
1 lb. ground turkey
1 lb. green beans
1 lb. diced sweet potatoes
10 oz. peanut butter
15 oz. cranberry sauce
7 oz. beef-flavored rice and vermicelli
20 oz. shoestring fries
32 oz. 2 percent reduced fat shelf-stable milk
6 oz. pancake mix
One dozen eggs
One dessert item
Senior/convenience box - $28
Sweet 'n sour chicken
Spaghetti with meat sauce
Chili con carne
Chicken with Creole sauce
Ground beef teriyaki stir fry
Chicken ala king
Beef cabbage casserole
Chicken rice pilaf
Thanksgiving box - $30
7 lb. (average) Perdue roasting hen
2 lb. Heat-and-serve mashed potatoes
2 lb. Heat-and-serve corn
2 lb. Heat-and-serve green beans
17 oz. Cornbread stuffing
4.5 oz. Brown gravy mix
15 oz. Cranberry sauce
Eight dinner rolls
One dessert item
Broadway Christian Church is one of five churches in Columbia that act as host sites for Angel Food Ministries, a national food relief ministry that aims to save families and individuals money on food each month by providing a low-priced, pre-packaged box of food to participating clients, or guests.
According to Angel Food's Web site, the program's basic $30 box of food, which contains a combination of fresh, frozen and nonperishable food items valued at $65, can feed a family of four for a week or a single senior citizen for nearly a month. Other boxes, which contain specialty or seasonal items such as grill meat or produce, may be valued at up to $80 but usually sell for less than $30.
"This is an easy way to save a lot of money on food and to still be getting good food, quality food and a lot of it," said Debby Graham, Broadway's coordinator of outreach ministry and member services, the program area that oversees the church's Angel Food activities.
That money-saving idea is music to many residents' ears, particularly in the face of the recent economic downturn — and particularly since one of Angel Food's distinguishing characteristics is an absence of income requirements. Although the ministry does accept food stamps, according to its Web site, and was founded to help disadvantaged families, any family or individual may order food.
The mantra is, "If you eat, you qualify."
"It's not a poor person's program. It's for anybody," said Lisa Putting, the volunteer Angel Food distribution coordinator at Lighthouse Community Church. She said the program has fed an average of 45 to 55 families a month since beginning in April of this year. "People with families, seniors, anybody who would like more money at the end of the month to do something else with, whether you put it in your gas tank or save it up. Money's getting tight for almost everybody."
Chris Verslues, Broadway's distribution coordinator, estimated that the church's site fed about 175 families in September, a 35 percent increase over the previous month. "We're seeing a lot of people right now, whatever their economic situation is, really utilizing this service."
Those families are among more than 20 million Americans who have saved money on groceries using Angel Food, according to a news release from the organization. In August alone, the ministry fed more than 500,000 families in 35 states — a long way from its 1994 founding in Monroe, Ga., by husband-and-wife pastors Joseph and Linda Wingo.
According to Angel Food's Web site, the Wingos were looking for a way to feed families and friends in their community who were financially struggling but who didn't qualify for aid or were too proud to ask for help. The couple came up with a plan that eventually turned into Angel Food Ministries.
Guests order the box at their host site church during the first half of a given month. The orders are sent to Angel Food's headquarters, which delivers the food to host sites from distribution centers in Georgia and Texas. Guests return to the church to pick up their food at a volunteer-driven distribution session typically held on the last Saturday morning of the month.
Use of Angel Food's services is not limited exclusively to members of the host church. In fact, a substantial number of guests come from outside the host church.
At Lighthouse, according to Putting's best estimate, more people order from outside the church than from within its membership.
"When we first started it, there were a lot of people in our own church ordering to find out," Putting said. "Like a pebble in a pond, waves just keep reaching out, and we're always reaching new people."
At Broadway's Angel Food Saturday in late September, two guests who were not Broadway members both said they had heard about the church's Angel Food program from friends.
"It's well organized. Very nice people," said Susan Wallace, a first-time guest who was hoping to use Angel Food boxes as a Christmas or birthday gift to her sister and to a friend who is a senior citizen. "You have to admire them for getting out here on a Saturday morning and donating their time to do this."
That spirit of volunteerism pervades everything Angel Food does. Known as "a food ministry with a servant's heart," Angel Food encourages people to volunteer from inside and even outside its host churches.
Verslues came to his position as distribution coordinator because of what he calls his "willingness to serve with a servant's heart."
"That's what we do at Angel Food Ministries," Verslues said.
Don Day, a member of the mission and outreach committee at Broadway, said volunteers are usually employed for both distribution days and order days.
The service Angel Food renders rewards its volunteers in addition to helping its guests.
"I enjoy seeing the people come by and get their food," Day said. "They seem appreciative of being able to buy the food."
"We really like talking to the other volunteers," added Marcia Walker, another Broadway volunteer and mission and outreach committee member. "It is a way for church members to get to know each other better. We work together as a team, and so you are with different people each time. It's a way for the church to bond together."
"You don't see anybody on our side of the table who's not really happy to be there," Graham said.
In some cases, guests also find themselves giving back. Dawn Robinson, a single mother of four who has been ordering from Angel Food through Broadway for about a year of the year and a half the church has offered the service, said she donates her family's remaining food items to a drop box at the church. The items ultimately are taken to the Salvation Army.
"By participating in the program, we're not only getting help, but we're also helping other people," Robinson said.
That volunteer spirit will become more important as demand for Angel Food increases. Both Verslues and Putting said that they expect an increase in orders during the holiday season.
In the eyes of Broadway member and volunteer Don Bressman, whose first Angel Food Saturday was the September distribution day, Angel Food provides certainty in uncertain economic times.
"We're helping people with a good cause, especially with the economy the way it is today," Bressman said. "There's so much uncertain right now in the economy and certainly in the U.S., and this is something people can count on."
Angel Food Ministries host sites in Columbia
2601 W. Broadway
3200 Chapel Hill Rd.
1100 N. 7th St.
7461 N. Brown Station Rd.
4275 E. Highway WW