The sun has barely risen when people begin to line up to receive food at The Lord’s Pantry, a food distribution center run by Community Health Outreach (formerly West Jax Outreach) on Timuquana Road.
“People arrive here really early in the morning, like 5 a.m. or 6 a.m.,” said Pastor Young Smith, who oversees the pantry for Community Health Outreach. “When we pass out numbers at 8 a.m. there are already at least 20 people here, rain or shine, cold or whatever. They sit on benches until 8 a.m., and we hand out numbers so they can leave if they want and come back at 10 a.m. when we begin to distribute the food,” he explained, noting after filling out some basic paperwork, pantry volunteers give them a brown bag, with a balanced meal of meat, vegetables, produce, and canned goods. “No ID is required to get food,” said Smith. “Our volunteers help carry the bags out to their cars.”
Sometimes the cars are nicer than one would expect, Smith said, but that is just a testament to the kind of people he sees that are down on their luck.
“We see everything, especially people who drive up in fancy cars and have lost their jobs. We Americans, we live paycheck to paycheck, and don’t plan for future hard times. They are good people, many with skills and education, who may have lost their jobs due to medical issues or various other reasons,” he explained, adding that often the nice car is shared by multiple clients, belongs to a neighbor or has been loaned by a friend so food can be easily be carried home.
Other patrons of The Lord’s Pantry are working moms struggling to care for kids by themselves and even a gentleman who comes to get food to give to the homeless.
“We see some homeless here, too, but not as many as other pantries because we mostly give out stuff you have to cook,” Smith said, noting when a large supply of MRE’s (Military Meals Ready to Eat) are occasionally donated, they are saved for homeless clients.
Between 2013 and 2016, Community Health Outreach nearly doubled the number of bags of meals its food pantry distributed from 23,797 to 41,610, said Bernice Mauras, executive director of the nonprofit.
“During significant economic downturns, other food pantries have reported their volunteers were forced to become customers,” she said. “Not all families have bounced back from the challenges of 2007/2008. A significant portion of our recipients are veterans, and we serve about 200 to 300 meals a week.”
Community Health Outreach was founded in 1988 as a ministry of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. “It started with two members of the church as a food bank and very rapidly became a ministry that embraced teen crisis pregnancy,” recalled Father James Barnhill of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
Eventually the ministry became a 501(C)(3) organization, which is still dedicated to the Christian principles of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and clothing the needy. “At Community Health Outreach, we strive to nurture the mind, body, and soul,” said Mauras.
The nonprofit covers five separate adjacent buildings and supplies needy clients with a variety of services, including emergency and preventive dental treatment, primary medical care, food assistance, health awareness programs, confidential pregnancy testing and optional counseling, a chapel, and a “Baby Love” distribution center, where needy mothers can get maternity clothes, formula, baby food, baby clothes, and diapers.
The Lord’s Pantry is a USDA site, receiving food from Farm Share, Feeding Northeast Florida, Winn-Dixie and Wal-Mart, Grass Roots Natural Market, and Waste Not-Want Not as well as the Boy Scouts and individual donors.
The Jim Moran Foundation is a major supporter of The Lord’s Pantry, said Mauras. Each year, the local post office conducts an annual food drive, which brings in thousands of pounds of food, she said, adding occasionally small community fundraisers are also held and much appreciated. Last year, the postal workers donated 27,000 pounds of food, Smith said.
“The Sontag Foundation believes in and invests in our mission, and partners with us to help us serve as many as possible. Our partnership with St. Peter’s Church is also a real blessing, but with that said, most funding is time-limited, and we need to identify new supporters to maintain and grow our food distribution,” Mauras said.
Receiving the donation of a new freezer and cooler would be a dream, Smith said, noting that it has been slow going to get the pantry’s existing appliances refurbished. “Sometimes we turn down pallets of meat that we could distribute,” he said.
Also needed are consistent volunteers, food donations, and financial contributions and the donation of plastic and paper bags, said Mauras. “We would also love to find someone to help our community garden prosper.”
“We have an 82-year-old lady that comes and waters our garden,” Smith explained, indicating she could use some help. “Our eventual goal would be to produce enough food to help support the pantry. I also have a vision to make take-home gardens like the ‘three sisters’ the Native Americans did with the corn, green beans, and squash growing together. I want to have them planted in five-gallon buckets with instructions on the side of how to take care of them and how to make soup out of the three items. If we can teach people to garden and take care of themselves, that can really be a hand-up to people.”