CTTT Technical Assistance Spotlight: Red Oak United Methodist Church

RAFI’s Come to the Table program has been providing mini-grants to rural United Methodist Churches throughout North Carolina who have been responding to the increased hunger in their communities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These mini-grants are made possible through the support of The Duke Endowment and provide funding to churches who are purchasing food from local growers or local restaurants to distribute in their community.

Come to the Table is uniquely situated to connect faith communities with farmers and farmers markets in their communities. Please contact Michelle Osborne ([email protected]) for more information.

We had a conversation with one grantee, Reverend David Joyner of Red Oak United Methodist Church near Rocky Mount, to learn more about Red Oak UMC’s food ministry and the impact of the grant.

How did your food program begin? What was it a response to?

It was born out of a backpack buddy program in the local school. Our church began questioning  what happens in the summer for these kids. The school system has feeding sites, but there is no response for kids who aren’t able to make it to those sites. Our church did backpack buddies during the school year. We met on Thursday afternoons at church. Someone would go to Sam’s Club and purchase the food and volunteers would put the totes together. Parents could come pick up totes, or we would personally deliver them. We started off buying from Sam’s Club, then shifted to purchasing from local growers and local sources. We get all of our produce – tomatoes, green beans, squash, zucchini – from the local farmers market, 10 minutes down the road from the church. Recently we started wondering what it would look like if the church planted a garden and grew the produce. We have an acre of land next to the parsonage and have started planting veggies there. We’ve based the selling of the produce [from the garden] on a pay-what-you-can model.  We just built a chicken coop and will be getting our own eggs to give to families as well. 

What would you say to a church that is concerned that buying from local farmers might be more expensive than buying from a large retailer?

Paying a liveable wage to workers is ingrained in the culture of our church. When the idea of buying from the local farmers market was brought up, some wondered if we should ask the farmer to price match against Sam’s Club. We decided against that because it seems unfair to ask an individual farmer to price match against a large retailer. What we did instead was that we negotiated with farmers around bulk, season-long buying. In the end, it probably cost $300-$400 more to purchase from local farmers, but we typically spend $14,000 a summer on backpack buddies, so the price difference didn’t have a huge impact. We’re really grateful for the relationships we’ve developed with farmers. We’re called to be in relationship ministries. If we can’t do that, maybe we’re nothing more than a Sam’s Club church to begin with. 

What is your relationship with those in the community that you serve?

As a result of these ministries, some of the families have become regular attendees at church, and our church has become a diverse and younger congregation. We don’t want to give just a handout, but want to develop relationships with the families we serve. We also want the food in the totes to be food that the kids will eat.  Let’s talk, if you don’t like sausages, we won’t give you a tote of sausages. One girl doesn’t like grape flavored food, so we don’t put that in her tote. This child sees that the church cares about what she wants and needs.

How has your programming been impacted by the pandemic? Your community and those you serve?

The pandemic has hampered face to face delivery of the food. We’ve increased the number of totes we have, so we can do cleaning. The need has been greater as well. Housekeepers who used to work at the hotel are now out of work. Some of these newly unemployed families now help in the garden. Volunteerism remains strong. 

How has this Come to the Table mini-grant helped to support your work?

It was primarily used to purchase foods from the farmers market because of increased need. A church member heard about the grant and gave us a matching grant to support seed purchases and get the garden going. The farmers that we’ve built relationships with have been very supportive of the garden idea. They came out and volunteered their time to plow the land for the garden for us.

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