The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Bless this food

Lutherans fill hearts, tables, gardens — even backpacks

When Venice Williams saw the woman walking down the street with three children in tow, she had one thought: Get the strawberries.

For months the director of Alice’s Garden had been trying to coax the young mother and her family into the 2-acre community fruit and vegetable garden in Milwaukee. But now it was strawberry season. Williams felt sure their sweet taste could succeed where all her talking had failed.

She offered some to the kids and their mom. After they’d eagerly eaten the fruit and asked for more, “I said, ‘Well, come on in, we grow those here,’ ” recalled Williams, who attends All People’s [Lutheran] Church, Milwaukee. “They entered the garden that day, and their lives have never been the same since.”

Williams quickly learned that the mother was in an emotionally abusive relationship and needed friendship and community. The garden and its programs, such as family cooking classes and guided walks through a labyrinth funded by Lake Park Lutheran Church in 2011, provided both. The mother began to open up more, and finally the day came when she pointed to the labyrinth and said, “This healed me.”

Williams said, “She is one of the strongest examples of how having this space helps people find God. It’s about tending the land, but it’s also about tending to those deep places on your spiritual journey. The garden and the labyrinth made no sense to her in the beginning. But the seeds had been planted.”

That’s just one way Lutherans nationwide use food — even something as small as a strawberry — as a means of living their faith.

As the most universal of needs, food can connect us to each other and to God in primal, pleasurable and deeply fulfilling ways. Whether the goal is to feed the hungry, build a community, encourage environmental stewardship or do all three at once, food-based programs nourish minds and spirits as well as bodies.

Feeding the hungry

Jim Sandt has long known where he belongs: outside, working the land. “For some reason, the good Lord blessed me with the knowledge that I wanted to be a farmer, and I knew that from the time I was about 10,” he said.

After several decades of managing a 2,000-acre commercial fruit operation, then running his own farm and orchard, the third-generation farmer thought he knew just about everything there was about agriculture. Then his pastor at St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pen Argyl, Pa., urged him to attend a conference hosted by ELCA World Hunger.

“He says, ‘I think they need you down there,’ ” Sandt said. “[I responded]: ‘I don’t think they need me .... There’s gonna be a bunch of suburban people not knowing how to grow one thing, and I’m not sure how much food that’s gonna put in the mouths of hungry people.’

“Well, let me tell you, my attitude changed. Those people knew where it’s at. When I left that conference, I left with the idea in my head that there was going to be a community garden one way or the other.”

As it happened, St. Peter has a sizable amount of farmable land. Sandt quickly enlisted the congregation’s help to not only turn the land into a community garden but also form relationships with local food banks.

The food banks eagerly accepted the produce — all 8,300 pounds of zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkins, Brussels sprouts and onions — and distributed it to needy families.

“It just sort of caught afire,” Sandt said of the project. “We did all the little jobs — planting, weeding, harvesting, delivering. The good Lord grew all the food.”

About 400 miles to the west, Lutherans are at work in a very different setting.

Calvary Lutheran Church in East Cleveland, Ohio, sits in an impoverished urban neighborhood with no real grocery store — a few small shops stock more liquor than food. To get by, many residents turn to Calvary’s Hunger Center, which distributes groceries three times a week.

But hunger isn’t the only food-related problem. Many residents also suffer from Type 2 diabetes and other illnesses that are made worse by consuming processed foods high in sodium, fat and sugar.

So Hunger Center director Evan Stewart helps clients learn to cook nutritious, affordable meals. The project received a $3,000 ELCA World Hunger grant in 2013.

“We try to encourage them to get more vegetables into their diet,” he said. “We have a fellow who comes in from the farmers’ market [who teaches] different ways of preparing meals. We have a lot of single female clients with many children. If we can change their eating habits, it will make a big change in years to come with the chronic disease situation that we’re facing right now.”

As St. Philip Lutheran Church in Roanoke, Va., has discovered, hunger is often hidden. Its pastor, Kelly Derrick, learned from her children’s
elementary-school principal that some students were showing behavioral and emotional problems as a result of not having enough to eat at home, particularly over the weekends. She relayed that fact to the congregation.

“Our people were shocked to realize that this kind of hunger was going on in our neighborhood,” she said. “The congregation said: ‘There are children in our backyard who are going hungry every day? We have to do something about this.’ ”

That’s how Elijah’s Backpack was formed. Named for the prophet who was fed through God’s mercy, the program distributes healthy meals and snacks each Friday afternoon to schoolchildren in need. ELCA World Hunger supported their effort with grants totaling $5,000 for 2012 and 2013.

Forty-eight children at three elementary schools receive soup, ravioli, apple sauce, fruit cups, granola bars and other items in single-serving sizes. “We’re trying to provide the healthiest food that we can while still working within the confines of our budget,” Derrick said.

The principals and guidance counselors say Elijah’s Backpack makes a difference. “Children come to school more prepared [and] can focus better. They seem more engaged in the classroom,” Derrick said.

Recognizing hunger where it exists: That’s the goal of Hunger 101, which Emma Wagner helps lead for the Delaware-Maryland Synod. Wagner, a student at Towson [Md.] University and a member of St. Michael Lutheran Church, Baltimore, has led it about 10 times for congregations and schools.

Participants are assigned a profile of a person from their area who can’t purchase all the food they need with their own resources. They visit simulated grocery stores, food pantries and social service agencies, trying to meet their families’ calorie requirements for one week without going over budget.

“My goal every time I put it on is for the participants to try to understand the realities that people in our community face when they’re trying to feed their families,” Wagner said.

Most participants, she added, are shocked by how complicated and intimidating the application for the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is.

“It’s about 12 pages, and if you fill out one part wrong, the whole thing is invalid,” she said. “And you don’t get food right away—it takes four to six weeks to process the application. I just want participants to understand that for some people, getting food isn’t as easy as getting chips out of the pantry.”

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