By Gari Voss
The food ministry began as a desire to extend a hand to those in need, and has grown from a church kitchen to a distribution center that not only supplies food for the Congregation Kitchen dinners each Thursday, but distributes food to 30 food pantries across five counties, and fills about 400 backpacks that are sent home with students each weekend.
During its 16 years, the program has been given the Allegan Public Schools “Bell Award” for Community Programs and presented the 2014 Allegan Area Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award.
In 2006, Don Lucas acknowledged that there was a need to provide food to people in Allegan. Many individuals did not have enough to provide nutritious meals for themselves and/or their families. This led to the beginning of the Thursday dinners at the First Congregational Church on Cutler Street in Allegan, MI.
With the assistance of members in the Church and other supporters, produce, staples and canned goods were gathered and meals were prepared. The more meals prepared and distributed; the more meals were requested. The degree of food insecurity became more evident, especially in the winter months. The demand grew to a level that 800 to 1000 meals were served each Thursday before COVID hit.
“People came each week because they could get a meal in a safe place. It was not only the food, but the fellowship,” explained Jerry Francisco, a longtime volunteer of the Warehouse.
The need for a continuous stream of food to the Kitchen each week led to organizing a network which could supply the ingredients and paper products required to meet the growing demand for healthy meals. A collection point was sought.
Lydia and Mike Walsh stepped up to the plate. Their building in the Allegan’s Highland Industrial Park had once housed a huge supply of how-to manuals and support information that consumers wanted because of losing the original paperwork for their equipment. With the growth of information on the Internet, the requests decreased and the couple allowed the Congregational Kitchen to use part of the building to house their supplies. Lydia rolled up her sleeves and assisted with the initial organization of food donations.
The Kitchen’s leadership has been able to capture food from a variety of food brokers. Each Thursday, the warehouse receives two significant deliveries of commodities of all types of food and other supplies. The pallets of boxed, canned and bulk perishables and staples must be sorted and shelved.
While some breakdown and shelf canned goods, others move bags and boxes of bulk food into the Clean Room. The Clean Room team divides and bags hamburger, cheese, rice, etc. Some of the food is taken to the freezer or stored in the refrigerator. Parceled dry goods find space on the shelves.
“Everything must be organized carefully and inventoried before Thursday’s work ends,” shared Carrie Lovett, chairperson of the Board. “We send out our inventory to 30 pantries across five counties so they can send in their orders that will be filled on Friday.”
Fridays begin at 7am when teams review the various pantry orders. Since COVID, the pickup teams do not enter the building, but are given a specific pickup time. Each pantry has a 30 minute window to arrive at the warehouse and move their food requests to their vehicles, then return to the pantries in Ottawa, Kent, Van Buren, Allegan or Kalamazoo County.
The process has been improved over time. “Everyone just comes in, knows what to do and does it efficiently. It’s amazing how the people work together to make the process run smoothly. I am amazed how God grew the food ministry in increments from feeding a few to gathering and sharing the bounty of food and supplies with food banks in 5 counties,” quipped Lovett.
When Friday afternoon arrives, the warehouse quietly sighs after a job well done, but only to prepare for Monday when the Backpack Meal Program elves arrive to work. The Backpacks are filled with well-balanced foods which include shelf-stable milk, cereal, cups of fruit, Ramen noodles, cups of stew or other soup, etc. “We do not include cookies or chips,” Carrie explained.
“The “backpacks” are really plastic bags that students can stuff in their own backpack. The recipients are students from the Allegan Public Schools who qualify for free or reduced lunch. The contents will provide several meals over the weekend.”
School personnel work with volunteers of the Backpack Meal Program coordinated by the Congregational Kitchen to report the number of backpack meals needed each Friday. Warehouse volunteers assemble the backpacks. Other volunteers deliver the backpacks to the schools in the Allegan School district. There is no cost to the recipients.
The First Congregational Church wanted to accomplish their mission “to provide food to as many people as we can reach. Compassionately caring for our community through healthy free meals.”
“This program would not succeed without volunteers – those in the warehouse who do a variety of tasks, those in the church kitchen who prepare meals or serve meals, those who fill backpacks then others who deliver meals on Thursdays or the bags of food to the schools. There is a task for anyone who wishes to share their time and hands,” Lovett stressed.
Lovett reflected that a walk through the warehouse reveals that a program of this magnitude requires specialized equipment – walk-in freezers and refrigerators, special space for a Clean Room to separate bulk materials, racks of different sizes for storage or for completing orders, a washer and dryer, etc. Thanks to contributions from supporters, most of the big equipment has been obtained, but there is always building upkeep and repair.
In its 16th year of providing food to the community, the Congregational Kitchen and Warehouse are looking at reaching new goals. Thanks to support from the Delano Foundation and the Allegan County Community Foundation for food and basic supplies, the leadership team has reached out to others. With donations from a variety of sources, Lovett shared that it is hoped the Warehouse will be able to pay off the mortgage in the near future.
“I thought that I would do a variety of things after retiring five years ago, but the Lord placed me here. This is true for so many others. We could not accomplish our goals without volunteers. There are tasks for anyone who has half an hour or five hours to give.”
Steps are taken to keep volunteers and customers safe while enjoying the fellowship embedded in the programs. Anyone who wishes to donate some time and talent can contact Carrie Lovett at (269) 512-2214.