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Volunteers at the Arkansas Food Bank collect food during Ingathering 2020 | File Photo
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One of the things I am looking forward to as we see COVID come to an end is gathering around the table. With masks and distancing, gathering in person for a meal- be it communion, a potluck, or a spaghetti supper- has gone by the wayside. Food is an integral part of sharing our faith. If hashbrown casseroles are any indication, then there is a direct line connecting our stomachs to our souls.
Even though we have been unable to gather at tables, that does NOT mean that food has stopped being an instrument for ministry in our churches. Our work to increase food security in our communities is more important now than ever. Which is why food pantry volunteers have been deemed essential workers and are eligible to receive vaccines in Group 1-B.
Currently, vaccines are available for Group 1-B members who are over 70 or working in education. However, this group will expand to include others of Group 1-B in the future. At present, food pantry volunteers are not eligible for vaccination, however, pantries and meal programs should take steps to prepare for when they might be able to receive their vaccines.
Feeding ministries like food pantries, meal programs, and summer feeding opportunities will need to be currently serving their community to be eligible. Pastors and food pantry directors are charged with identifying those who are not in other priority groups but are working with the food ministry and therefore would qualify to receive the vaccine under Group 1-B. Pastors and directors will provide letters and work with their local pharmacy to let volunteers know steps to take in receiving vaccinations.
200K More Reasons has provided pastors with example letters for pharmacies and other directions. Those instructions can be found on the ARUMC YouTube channel.
As we approach the one-year mark of responding to the Coronavirus pandemic, it is easy to look back and see where God has been at work in our communities through our feeding ministries. The people called Methodists stepped up to walk alongside families struggling in the midst of this global health crisis. Many feeding ministries saw an increase of 40% or more in the number of families and households they served in 2020. Some of our churches have forged new partnerships like the Southeast District congregations working with the Arkansas Foodbank to provide volunteer support for mobile distributions. Our faith has continued to lead us into the community to love our neighbors.
Everyone has adapted to a new way of doing ministry. Pantries around the state have shifted their methods to drive-up and drive-thru services in light of the pandemic. Volunteers have donned masks and gloves to continue to serve their neighbors. Pastors and pantry leaders have made difficult decisions to close, even temporarily, in order to keep their communities safe. Despite the hardships and challenges, Arkansas’ United Methodist Churches have continued to show love for their neighbors through blessing boxes, backpacks, pantries, meals, and more.
Vaccinations will not cause any changes in the day-to-day operations of food ministries at first. Volunteers are highly encouraged to receive vaccines but can continue to serve without vaccinations. Even if all volunteers are vaccinated, the recommendation is to continue social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, and following all COVID safety protocols. Current CDC guidelines do state that vaccinated individuals do not have to quarantine after exposure unless they exhibit symptoms of COVID. This will help many pantries to remain in operation on a more consistent basis.
It has been a long year, friends. The inclusion of food ministries in the essential worker category is a spot of light; a hope for all of us. The time is coming when we can again gather safely around tables to share a meal. I, for one, cannot wait to do so.