Volunteers Toil In Church Soil To Help Hungry

By  //  July 13, 2012

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Surplus church land ideal to grow produce

BREVARD COUNTY • MERRITT ISLAND, FLORIDA – When Phyllis Rhinehart toils in “her” vegetable garden, the goal is not to put food on her own table. She is feeding the body and soul of hungry and homeless families across Brevard.

Nancy Cook claims she gets more out of volunteering in the garden more than the people in need who receive the vegetables. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

“In food pantries across the county, you find a lot of macaroni and cheese and other dry pasta, potato and rice products, canned goods, and maybe some day-old bread. It’s not a very healthy fare,” Rhinehart said. “This is a way to get fresh, live foods into the bodies of children, their parents, and individuals who are at risk of, or are currently, living out of doors.”

Rhinehart’s garden is actually on surplus land owned by Riviera United Church of Christ in Palm Bay.

She is the coordinator of the member volunteers who work the soil.

The sweat from her brow and those of fellow members is converted to healthy meals served at Daily Bread soup kitchen in Melbourne.

Church volunteers showcased the idea at a past Brevard Interfaith Coalition’s annual FestivALL of Faiths to plant the seed for other faith groups to follow suit.

Showcase of Services

The group is made up of lay and clergy members of all faiths who reach out to help those less fortunate, and the event is a showcase of services provided to make others aware of referral resources for their flocks.

“We hope others will do the same, because nearly all churches have surplus land or certainly a plot large enough to produce fresh foods to enhance their food pantries, or to give to pantries nearby,” Rhinehart said. “And certainly they have the volunteer labor.”

The solution is a brilliant one, said Daily Bread Executive Director John Farrell.

“We are so thankful for these perishable foods and we encourage anyone who can – churches, individuals, businesses – to donate fresh vegetables, fruits and chilled items as well as the nonperishable foods.” Daily Bread Executive Director John Farrell

“Produce of any kind is hard to get because it does decay and stores are reluctant to give it for that reason,” Farrell said.

He is in the middle of expanding operations to feed more homeless and hungry families and individuals who have shown up due to the economic downturn.

“We are so thankful for these perishable foods and we encourage anyone who can – churches, individuals, businesses – to donate fresh vegetables, fruits and chilled items as well as the nonperishable foods,” Farrell said.

The facility serves hot meals twice daily. Food for meals is mostly provided, cooked and served by groups of volunteers from churches who adopt a certain meal or two a week or a month.

Families in need shop along table-top aisles at House of Hope Food and Clothing Ministry on Merritt Island. (Image by Linda Wiggns)

Refrigerated food is rare

Mike Huber is the executive director of Brevard County’s largest distributor of emergency food that is not located in a church, the South Brevard Sharing Center.  He marvels at the capacity of the largest distributor, House of Hope at First Baptist Church of Merritt Island, to obtain, store and distribute chilled products like milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, butter and fresh meats. In short, anything in a grocer’s refrigerated section.

“We are in awe of them,” Huber said.” We just don’t have the refrigeration capacity, and we don’t have arrangements with grocers to give us refrigerated products nearing their expiration dates like they do.

Huber hopes to provide more refrigerated products with the purchase of a large walk-in cooler. The boon comes courtesy of extra money in the agency’s portion of funds collected and distributed by the United Way of Brevard. It will be installed at the main location on Hibiscus inMelbourne, allowing the existing 14 stand-up units to be spread out among the nonprofit agency’s Melbourne location and others in Palm Bay.

Shelves stacked with food are available for families in need at the House of Hope Food and Clothing Ministry on Merritt Island. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

Food giant

The largest distributor of emergency food in Brevard is Second Harvest, which serves counties throughout Central Florida and beyond. It is so named for the practice and law in Biblical times in which land owners were to harvest their land and leave the second picking – or second harvest – to widows and orphans.

The emergency food distributor has grown so much that it is undergoing a name change to Feed America. While it does not give out food directly, it partners with agencies like House of Hope, its largest partner, to give out the food.

Feed America provides 78 percent of emergency food in Brevard used by pantries, 52 percent of food used in soup kitchens and 38 percent of the food used in homeless shelters.

“The increase in need has been dramatic over recent years due to the space shuttle program shut-down.” Valerie Carl, Feed America Brevard coordinator

“The increase in need has been dramatic over recent years due to the space shuttle program shut-down. The Kennedy Space Center layoffs added to the soft economy experienced across the country,” said Valerie Carl, Feed America’s Brevard coordinator. Her job is to monitor the compliance of the social-service and faith-based food pantries, and help larger, more sophisticated food banks at churches become partner distribution agencies.

The giant’s giant

The House of Hope Food and Clothing Ministry is a cooperative between First Baptist Church of Merritt Island, Georgianna Methodist Church, Grace Methodist Church and Calvary Chapel Merritt Island.

There are 24 stand-up freezers, one large walk-in cooler and a 53-foot tractor trailer modified to be half freezer, half dry-storage facility.

In 2011, more than 100,000 individuals received more than 2.7 million pounds of food.  Free clothing was provided to more than 9,400 clients, and more than 1,200 bag lunches were distributed.

Volunteers unpack a shipment of food for needy families at the House of Hope at First Baptist Church of Merritt Island. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

Food is distributed every Monday, including holidays and during inclement weather, beginning at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 10:30 am. It looks like a cross between a warehouse-style grocery store and an automobile assembly line.

People who register before 10:30 a.m. are allowed to go through the line and make their selections. Stragglers arriving after 10:30 a.m. can still get a pre-made bag of groceries.

Clothing, bicycles, showers, and all other services are also provided during these hours on Mondays. While food is the key, the ultimate goal of the ministry is to increase life skills so that individuals go from needing help to helping others.

Food is both given out on site and also distributed through 21 partner agencies.

Feed America established the Grocery Alliance, which entails contracts with more than 20 large grocery stores throughout Brevard to collect and disburse chilled foods and other perishable and nonperishable items, but House of Hope has the trucks to pick up the food, which is then sorted, given out on site and trucked to partner agencies acrossCentral Brevard.

Nancy Cook volunteers to help grow vegetables that eventually help feed those in need and hungry. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

“We have the excess of food, the trucks and the volunteers, so we are happy to help (Feed America) help others, as well as helping our immediate families in need,” said Steve Young, executive director of House of Hope.

All of the 65 staff members are volunteers, including Young.

Volunteering is the gift that gives back

The actual act of working for the sheer joy of giving seems to be an important concept in faith-based distribution of both perishable and nonperishable food.

In Nancy Cook’s case, that goes double for growing it in the first place.

Plucking the last of the tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers from the Riviera garden, she checks to see if the squash and eggplant are ready to harvest. Hardier sweet potatoes, winter squash and pumpkins will endure the hot Florida summer until the fall planting season.

“We are helping in the world to be God’s hands and feet as we (grow) and donate the food to those who don’t have the ability to get it on their own,” said the avid volunteer, flicking a trickle of mid-summer sweat from her cheek.

“We have figured out that loving God and helping others is the reason we are here, and doing it gives us the experience of heaven on Earth.”


    • I am sorry but I did not see this message until today. If you are interested in volunteering at this location, I would recomment contacting the church. There are many more churches starting community gardens. Someone who might help you in your search is Congregations for Community Action director Jan Everson at 321-254-1595. You may tell her I referred you. All best in your efforts.

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