Church, community battle food insecurity

Published 11:54 am Tuesday, January 16, 2024

By Buzz Trexler

Star Correspondent

 It’s been said it takes a village to raise a child; likewise, Elizabethton First Baptist Church’s Food Hub shows it takes a community to ensure everyone gets fed.

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 With the help of volunteers, local businesses, the City of Elizabethton, and Second Harvest Food Bank, the church’s monthly food distribution program has set its first distribution of the year for 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18.

 According to Sterling Cullop, food ministry coordinator, the Food Hub has its roots in a community outreach called “Thursdays With Jesus,” the goal of which was to reach people who may not feel comfortable attending a Sunday morning service. The program began in December 2020, but was halted during the COVID pandemic. 

 Meanwhile, Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) was also being impacted by COVID and contacted the church about being a “drop-off point.” The food bank brought a truck and unloaded it in the parking lot. The deferred-but-eager “Thursdays With Jesus” volunteers “rose to the occasion and showed up to distribute food as cars lined up in our parking lot and drove through a loading station,” Cullop said. “This went on through COVID for about a year and a half.”

 In the summer of 2021, Second Harvest needed fewer drop-off locations and more food pantry partners that were able to store food on-site and organize distribution. It was then that First Baptist Church transitioned to becoming a food pantry partner with Second Harvest. 



 “When we started in December 2020, we had about 100-150 households come through,” Cullop said in an email. “That has steadily grown each year.”

 In 2023, the ministry served an average of about 445 people, representing 204 households. The peak came in November and December when about 650 people were served, representing 295 households. “If the recession deepens or lingers, we think these two high months may indicate a greater need in our community continuing,” Cullop said in an email.

 According to Feeding America’s 2021 data, 8,610 Carter Countians were labeled as “food insecure,” which the United States Department of Agriculture defines as “the lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Of those, 60 percent had incomes below the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) threshold of 130 percent of the poverty level, while 40 percent had incomes above the SNAP poverty level.

 “The effort to help our neighbors is a shared goal by many, many churches and ministries in the Elizabethton and Carter County area,” Cullop said, citing Loaves and Fishes at River’s Edge Fellowship and the Carter Compassion Center as examples. “And importantly, the Carter Compassion Center is bringing to light not only needs but is helping to find ways to bring efficiency and effectiveness to ministry in our community,” he said. “It truly is a team effort, and we are grateful to our neighbors and agencies like Carter Compassion Center and Second Harvest Food Bank.”



 The ministry buys food, organizes the items, and uses two garage bays for storage. “The food is acquired mostly from SHFB but also from the open market,” Cullop said. “We are also assisted by local businesses who will donate items to us or sell to us at a discount. Two such businesses would be Valley Forge Auction and Wholesale and H and H Meat Market.”

 A week or two before the distribution date, volunteers gather on a Wednesday to pack about 10 to 12 non-perishable items in each bag, the number of bags is determined by recent trends. On distribution day, SHFB delivers perishable items to be included in each bag.

 “It takes devoted volunteers to do this every month and thankfully we have a lot of devoted folks in our church,” Cullop said. There is a lead ministry team of about seven to 10 people who plan, budget, shop, and coordinate the ministry; about 10 to 15 people show up on packing day “to walk the bag assembly line and put together 250-300 bags.” In addition to Cullop, the lead team includes Rick Simerly, Martha Laws, Kyle Kiser, Dean Batchelder, Jim Presnell, and the Rev. Todd Hallman.

 “On distribution day, we have a set-up crew of five to 10 that moves food and prepares the location,” Cullop said. “Then, when distribution starts, we have nearly 30 people working in multiple teams to execute the day: a registration team, parking lot and traffic team, ministry team, food loading team.”

 In the wake of all of that work, there is a data entry team of about six people that meet the following week to enter all the visits into the Second Harvest information system. Second Harvest uses this demographic information for grant applications and planning, Cullop said.

 “The City of Elizabethton has been a great assistance, as they shut down South Lynn Avenue for a few hours to allow traffic to flow more safely across our parking lot at the back side of our church building,” Cullop said. City Council on Jan, 11 approved closing South Lynn Avenue from West F Street to West G Street on the following Thursdays, from 12:45 p.m. to 4 p.m.: Jan. 18, Feb. 22, March 21, April 18, May 23, June 20, July 18, Aug. 22, Sept. 19, Oct. 24, Nov. 21, and Dec. 19.



 When the ministry began as a drop-off point, Cullop said, Second Harvest delivered the food at no cost; when the ministry transitioned to becoming a food pantry, First Baptist Church increasingly funded more of the food items. 

 “During COVID, there were grant monies available to make the cost of some items very low and sometimes free,” Cullop said. “But those days are mostly gone. Some manufacturers will still donate items to SHFB at no cost and we then get them at no cost, but that is rare today.”

 For the past two years, the church has budgeted more than $1,300 a month for the ministry. “But we anticipate that this year, due to rising costs, we will have a shortfall to some degree,” Cullop said. The ministry tries to keep the average cost of a 10- to 12-item bag at $5, but with nearly 300 households coming for assistance each month, Cullop expects the budget to be strained in the coming year.

 Still, Cullop said food for the body is only part of the ministry’s goal.

 “While our desire is to help our neighbors as they deal with food stresses, it is much more important to us to love them as our Lord Jesus would love them,” Cullop said. “Everyone in our community is special and worthy of our love and respect, and we hope they see Jesus’ love when they visit Food Hub.”

 Those seeking to help can contact the church office at (423) 543-1931, or mail donations to First Baptist Church, 212 East F St., Elizabethton, Tenn. 37643 designating that the funds go to “Food Hub.”



Whatever happened to “Thursdays With Jesus?” 

Cullop said the ministry survived COVID.

“On the last Thursday evening of the month, volunteers prepare a meal while our church vans drive to neighborhoods in the city and give youth a ride to church for the event,” he said. “Adults from the area also come for the hot meal and some singing and fellowship. Many of the same volunteers work in both outreaches and others as well.”