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Food for thought

Nebraska church reorganizes food pantry, re-energizes ministry

February 8, 2010

A man walks past another man holding plastic bags.

The Grace Ministries Food Pantry in North Platte, Neb., reorganized its leadership model and now better serves local needs. —Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church of North Platte.

STATESVILLE, N.C.

A church food pantry is not particularly unusual.

But it’s the way that First Presbyterian Church of North Platte, Neb., organizes and manages its pantry that stands it out from the crowd.

When it started 25 years ago, the Grace Ministries Food Pantry was an ecumenical effort under a fellowship of ministers. For nearly two decades, the pantry was located in the Presbyterian church, and except for the first few months, the pantry’s directors have all been Presbyterian.

When the fellowship decided to step away from the project, it seemed natural for First Presbyterian Church — part of Central Nebraska Presbytery — to take over.

In the beginning, the church ran the pantry like most other churches, with one leader in running every aspect. But when the most recent leader stepped down, the church decided to do something a little different. Instead of putting one person in charge of everything, the church split the work into five areas, putting one leader in charge of each.

“This is a great model,” said Bonnie Buckland, a church member who is in charge of the volunteer recruitment and training division at the pantry. “The division of labor makes things so much simpler and makes it a much less daunting task.”

The person who serves as the overall director is responsible for the finances of the pantry, while other divisions are responsible for food buying, outgoing correspondence, volunteers and sacking food. 

“It can seem like an overwhelming job to run or start a food pantry,” said co-pastor the Rev. Amy Jo Hawley. “But the way we’re doing it has made it so much easier not only overall but also for the individuals involved in it. It’s not so overwhelming for anyone.”

Dividing labor not only lessens the burden for workers, but it also makes the food pantry as a whole function better.

“They’ve really taken ownership in their divisions,” Hawley said. “That ownership gives them a sense of responsibility and pride in what they do. It makes them more responsible.”

This new model has been passed on to organizations that assist the pantry as volunteers. Volunteers from the local Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran churches and the Masonic Temple are responsible for working the same day every week. Following such a schedule ensures that the food pantry always has enough volunteers.

“They’ve been much more responsible about it,” Hawley said. “They know if they don’t come in and do their day, no one gets fed that day.”

The division of labor helps those who run the pantry work smarter too. Director Dean Kurth is able to focus more on the financial aspects of the pantry, which allows him to do much more than previous directors.

“They were so busy and wrapped up in the day-to-day running of the pantry that they just didn’t have the kind of time to really devote to looking for grants and programs to benefit the pantry,” Kurth said.

Because he doesn’t have to coordinate volunteers, pick up food or prepare food packages for clients, Kurth can take the time to work with local organizations or research grants the pantry may be able to receive.

Kurth said that 60 to 70 percent of the resources the pantry uses come from community and local sources while only 30 to 40 percent come from food banks. He’s even received a grant from Omaha, 250 miles away.

“I look at all foundations interested in resolving hunger issues,” he said. 

The division of labor has helped the pantry in other ways.

“We have one lady who writes all the ‘thank you’ notes to each of our donors, and that little extra touch so often brings return donors,” Kurth said. “We’re systematic about getting all of the donations recorded by our volunteers as food and cash donations come in during their shifts. It’s the sort of thing no one had time to do before.”

First Presbyterian is more than happy to share the secret of its food pantry’s success. The church believes strongly in the system and would love to see other churches benefit from it.

This sharing spirit and enthusiasm to help other churches follow their lead is what makes First Presbyterian Church, said the Rev. Robert Houser, general presbyter of Central Nebraska Presbytery.

“This is the church that when we look at them, they seem to have a spiritual life and vitality that is somehow deeper than some of our other churches,” Houser said. “They have a strong connection with the community and good strong leadership.”

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

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