Mobile food pantry serves student households
By Martha Taylor
What college student hasn’t eaten their weight in ramen noodles while waiting on a paycheck or financial aid to arrive? Making ends meet and having a bit of food in the cupboard is difficult for a single person; the challenge multiplies when you are a young parent, working full-time while trying to be the first person in your family to earn a college degree.
For students attending Arkansas State University’s two-year programs in Beebe, Harrisburg, Marked Tree and Newport, the burden of feeding themselves and their families was lightened this past fall when the Bread of Life Mobile Food Pantry began providing groceries for students.
The pantry, housed in a truck purchased and outfitted thanks to a grant from the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, visits each campus on the first, second or third Wednesday of the month. The fourth Wednesday of the month, the volunteers fill backpacks with non-perishable food for distribution to Harrisburg Public School students. It is one of over 200 members of the national Campus and University Food Bank Alliance.
In addition to the UMFA grant, the Northeast District of the United Methodist Church provided seed money to purchase food and to cover fuel expenses.
A ministry partnership between First United Methodist Church Harrisburg and the ASU Jonesboro Wesley Foundation, the Rev. Clark Atkins, Harrisburg’s pastor, said that 946 persons—483 students and their families, including 151 children—received more than 8,500 pounds of food between mid-September and the first week of December. Another 30 to 40 school-aged children in the Harrisburg School District received approximately 800 pounds of food through the Backpacks for Kids program.
Knowing the needs
The mobile pantry idea came from the Rev. Clark Atkins, pastor at First UMC Harrisburg. Atkins spent 18 years in higher education at four- and two-year institutions before entering ministry, so he saw first-hand the difficulties students experienced.
“I saw students trying to break the cycle of poverty, working two or three jobs, receiving financial aid and still struggling to make ends meet for their families,” Atkins said. “The students genuinely want to make a better life for themselves and their families, and the mobile food pantry is creating a space to help them do that.”
Atkins approached the Rev. Sam Meadors, Wesley Foundation director at ASU Jonesboro, about a partnership whereby she and student volunteers would stock the truck, prepare the bags and distribute them across the three campuses and in Harrisburg. From the beginning, Meadors knew the mission was one her students would embrace.
“As a Wesley Foundation director the biggest thing that comes out of this ministry is getting connected with our students and seeing them in service and mission with people their own age,” said Meadors. “What I hear over and over again from students is that they want to be the church, not just go to church, and this is giving them that opportunity.”
Meadors is especially pleased with the response the ministry received after Wesley Foundation students wrote letters to their home congregations letting them know about the Bread of Life ministry and asking for donations of specific items such as peanut butter, a student favorite. With ties to churches in four of the five districts in the Arkansas Conference, enough donations came in to allow for a special December distribution that included 135 Christmas hams and all the sides to make dinnertime at Christmas special.
The Harrisburg congregation has operated a food pantry for the past eight years, and members were ready to assist with the new mobile venture by handling administrative tasks, such as keeping up with the number of individuals served and amount of distributed food.
Other area churches are supporting the ministry as well. The Rev. Thompson Murray, pastor of First United Methodist Church Newport, volunteers with the ministry and sees the benefits for the students, area churches and the schools themselves.
“The ministry connects the church with students,” said Murray. “This is an avenue of making contact, and what I’ve experienced already is a growing relationship with the administrators of the schools. They can help me know what role I can play to better serve the students here.”
Two of ASU Newport’s top administrators, vice chancellor for student affairs Jacqueline Faulkner and dean of students Kimberly Long, say the benefits of having the mobile pantry were immediate.
With many of their students receiving financial aid and holding down jobs while attending school and caring for their families, Faulkner said students often seek out help making ends meet. The school has looked to local food pantries for assistance, but the need is greater than can be addressed.
“When we met and discussed this, I knew that there would be a need,” Faulkner said. “I couldn’t imagine the impact until we got a couple of visits under our belt and received the feedback from our students,” Faulkner said.
“It’s been a God-send to our students,” Long said. “We’ve gotten so many emails, so many personal face-to-face testimonials saying it’s really been a good benefit.”
Both Faulkner and Long said the mobile pantry has gained the approval and attention of faculty and staff, who have asked how they can help support the mission.
While Bread of Life is strengthening the connection between students, local churches and administrators, it’s the students themselves who are feeling physically and spiritually nourished.
Student Gwendolyn Conley was feeling the pressure of her responsibilities, and having Bread of Life as a resource helps lighten that weight.
“It’s kind of intense because we’re going to school every day, so it’s hard for me to work full-time,” Conley said. “I’ve been truly blessed by this ministry. [They’re] doing a great job.”
Atkins and Meadors are looking forward to February, when Bread of Life will again distribute food following the winter break. They are excited about the future, their partnership and newly-forged relationships with the administrators of the campuses they serve.
“We hear stories from the administrators who are actively trying to be partners in this ministry serving their students,” Atkins said. “Their willingness to work with us is heartening as we go forward.”
Grateful for the local church support they’ve received for Bread of Life through funding, volunteers and in-kind donations, Meadors says any local church wanting to help fight hunger need look no further than their own communities.
“First, donate food or funds to your local food pantry,” she said. “There are unmet needs all across Arkansas.”
The Rev. Taylor handles marketing and training for the Arkansas Conference.
Follow this ministry on Facebook at facebook.com/breadoflifemobile.