It started as a simple cupboard to hold food for needy families within the Woodville Grace Brethren Church in Mansfield, Ohio.
Jim and Evelyn Miller, motivated by Pastor Ron Smal’s sermon on helping the needy, purchased the cabinet as a place to store donated food. It allowed the congregation to distribute provisions to 16 or 20 disadvantaged families in the congregation. But demand quickly grew as news of the service got out.
“We were having a hard time keeping up with it,” recalls Smals.
The region, like many areas of the Midwest, has felt the effects of the recession. Where it once enjoyed a booming economy, the area has seen a decline in its manufacturing and retail sectors. Ten years ago, unemployment in Mansfield was above four percent. Recently, it peaked at 12 percent. The recent census revealed that the city’s population, like many other manufacturing areas in the north, had declined, though only by 3.1 percent. (Today, nearly 48,000 people call Mansfield home. )
In the working class neighborhood around the Woodville church, people were suffering. It was evident in the number of people from the community who requested assistance from the food cupboard.
It was about that time the church learned the Cleveland Foodbank, a Northeast Ohio organization that provides food and nonfood products to hunger centers in the region, was looking for sites to distribute food in the Mansfield area. A member of the Woodville congregation contacted the Foodbank and, as they say, the rest is history.
Since May 2010, twice-a-month deliveries to the Woodville Road church have allowed them to hand out food once a month to people in their area. Smals estimates the deliveries each time total as much as 12- to 15,000 pounds of food and sundry items. Until they are distributed at the monthly food banks, dry goods are stored in an 8×40-foot modular unit at the back of the church property. Items that require freezing or refrigeration are placed in one of the four freezers and three refrigerators in the church building.
“There are about 5,000 people within a one-mile radius of our church,” stresses Smals. “Of that number, 3,050 qualify for food.”
“Qualify” means they meet the assistance guidelines established by the state of Ohio, according to the pastor.
Smals estimates they feed approximately 130 to 175 families.
“That represents close to 600 people that we are actually feeding,” he says. “We give them enough food for three meals a day for three days per individual,” he adds, noting that often the food can be stretched for a week.
Their association with the Foodbank has allowed the church to expand donated dollars, sometimes 100-fold. “We pay so much per pound for the food,” he states. “So far, it has been amazing because we have gotten grants from individuals so that we [the church] have only had to spend about $30 out-of-pocket in the last year.”
The pastor says the program has electrified the Woodville congregation.
“We have many people, including the youth, who want to help with this,” he says. “Some of them never really got involved in anything before [at the church].”
On a typical distribution Saturday, volunteers will arrive at the church at 8 a.m. to begin setting up the food bank. In the meantime, individuals who qualify to receive the fare will be ushered into the auditorium to wait.
At 9 a.m., the food bank opens with 30 to 40 volunteers staffing stations. It is set up like a store, so individuals can “shop” for the items they need. The options may include canned and fresh vegetables, juice, toiletry items, paper products, and meat, depending on the season of the year.
The program has given the church new visibility in their community.
“I’m becoming the food bank pastor,” Smals says with a smile. “I go into a store and I hear them say, ‘Hey, there goes my pastor.’ They never come to our church, but they claim us because we feed them.”
He estimates the congregation has gained 15 families because of the outreach and many more have been exposed to the church’s ministries.
“We’re not allowed the share the gospel before they get their food,” he stresses. “They don’t have to sit through a program, so we basically build relationships. When people want to get married or they’re having a baby, we know about it. We try to follow up on those things.”
Still, follow-up can be a challenge when the full-time staff numbers Smals and the pastor of youth and family ministries, Aaron Jones. Founding pastor, Gene Witzky, now retired, also works part-time at the church.
“It’s difficult to follow up on all the contacts we have,” Smals admits. The food bank is only one of several Woodville Grace ministries that reach into the community. The church sponsors a preschool, which enrolls 30 students, hosts a support group for individuals with addictions, dubbed 4H for “healing hurts, hang-ups, and habits,” and maintains a regular ministry to the Community Alternative Center, a step-down jail that houses misdemeanor offenders.
“We’ll have 200 people on a Sunday in our church, but we’re actually ministering to more like 6- or 7- or 800 people because of the food pantry, preschool, and those other types of ministries.
Smals acknowledges that some have questioned involvement with the Foodbank because of the government support. “They’re going to give that food out one way or another,” he says. “It’s much better for us, as a church, to be the one distributing the food and being able to build relationships with people, who have eternal value,” he adds.