By Caleb Hennington
Digital Content Editor
As the pandemic raged on in 2020, United Methodist Churches across our conference stepped up to fill the gaps in food security that families and individuals were experiencing in Arkansas. Because of Geyer Springs United Methodist Church’s strong commitment to fighting food insecurity last year, they will be honored at this year’s Empty Bowls event.
Empty Bowls is an annual fundraising event put on by the Arkansas Foodbank. It’s currently in its 19th year, and each year, honorees who have shown initiative and commitment to helping end hunger in Arkansas are honored at the in-person celebration.
Typically, plates of food are prepared by Little Rock’s finest restaurants and chefs and sold to attendees at a sitdown event to raise money for the Foodbank, but because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event will be a drive-thru experience.
According to the Arkansas Foodbank, 40 million pounds of food were distributed across its 33-county region in Arkansas in 2020.
Connie Bledsoe, Agency Relations Director at the Arkansas Foodbank, said Geyer Springs UMC played a big role in that distribution number, and the church found success largely by employing the help of youth volunteers from their Southwest Little Rock community.
“At the onset of COVID-19, many of the pantry volunteers at Geyer Springs UMC were seniors categorized as a vulnerable population. In an effort to keep their elderly members safe, the church engaged its youth membership to take on leading the pantry. The pantry would have had to close down if it hadn’t been for the young people in the congregation to keep the pantry going. They serve almost 200 families a month.”
To put it simply, according to the Foodbank, Geyer Springs UMC never stopped serving during COVID.
The Rev. Danita Waller-Paige leads Geyer Springs UMC as part of the Southwest Little Rock Ministry Partnership, which also includes Saint Andrew UMC. Her congregation is situated in a diverse neighborhood and brings together people from all walks of life; young, old, male, female, Black, white, and Latinx.
Waller-Paige said she was amazed at the way her church stepped up during the pandemic to help feed not only her community but other communities around the Conference.
“We have touched people’s hearts by letting them become aware of our community’s great need during the pandemic. They responded by sending donations like I have never seen before. So we have been able to give food to 30% more people than usual,” Waller-Paige said.
The Geyer Springs UMC food pantry is open from 12 – 2 p.m. on the first and third Thursday of each month. Waller-Paige said they received grants from many different organizations last year that helped keep the pantry going, including Walmart, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the AR Hunger Alliance, the AR Foodbank, the Central District of the AR Methodist Conference, and The Little Rock Meet and Greet Club.
“Pastor Waller-Paige is an amazing pastor and leader,” Bledsoe said. “She leads two congregations in Southwest Little Rock both of which host regular food pantries.”
Waller-Paige said she is grateful for the award from the Arkansas Foodbank and is happy that the pantry has been such a blessing to not only her community but the people who volunteer to serve their community, too.
“We are humbled and appreciative of this extreme honor. It was unexpected but we all are honored!” Waller-Paige said.
Empty Bowls will take place from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m on May 7 at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock. Attendees will be able to pick up takeout containers of food from their car. Live entertainment will also be on display for people to enjoy from the comfort of their cars.