Visiting Trinity Lutheran Church’s Food Pantry in Riverside can offer deep lessons in humility, and not just for the clients.
“I’m always telling the volunteers, ‘don’t judge,’” said Pantry Coordinator Tom Culverwell, who has freely given his time for more than a decade, while long-time volunteer Bill Hiers agrees.
“We ask for a humble heart when we give out the food, because the people have a need, and we don’t need to be judging what it is,” Hiers said.
Staffed only by volunteers, Trinity Lutheran’s food pantry got its start in the early 1990s when church members attended a religious conference and came back wondering how their congregation could reach out more to the surrounding community. It was then the church decided to start two programs – a food pantry and the Children’s Enrichment Workshop, a free after-school program for elementary school children, which provides them a safe Christian environment until their parents can pick them up after work.
The food pantry began in 1995 as a two-day-a-week food give-away program through the church’s side door, and originally served folks suffering from food insecurity who lived in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the church. Today it resides in a separate building on the church campus at 1415 McDuff Avenue and is open five days a week, from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday, and Wednesday evenings from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
“If I could get enough volunteers I would reopen on Saturdays,” Culverwell said. “I had to shut down Saturdays because I couldn’t get enough volunteers.”
Over the past 11 years that Culverwell has served as coordinator, the pantry has seen its impact on the food-insecure community increase. In 2006, it served 5,211 residents in 1,597 households, distributing 14,970 pounds of food, while last year, 337,056 pounds of food were distributed to 47,213 individuals in 13,204 households. Each month, the pantry currently serves between 1,300 and 1,500 households and distributes approximately 35,000 pounds of food.
Culverwell attributes part of the increase to his pantry no longer having location restrictions, but finds it interesting that the number of Riverside residents using the pantry has increased dramatically over the years. “When we did a computer breakdown, we found that only two percent came from Riverside/Avondale in 2006, and last year that area was up to 12 percent,” he said.
Most of the clients who use the pantry are working poor or grandparents trying to support their grandchildren on a fixed income, Culverwell said. Clients may pick up food once every 30 days, while homeless can visit the pantry once a week. “We call them travelers,” he said.
“We are fortunate to have a bus station outside of the church on the corner of Park Street and McDuff, so a lot of people come to us that way. Others like to partner up with each other in cars,” he continued. “It is not unusual for us to carry food out to them and see their trunk already loaded with food because they have stopped at more than one pantry to try to feed their family. We don’t have a problem with that. Once the food leaves our hands, we aren’t going to worry about it. Truth be known, it’s less than two percent of the people that take advantage,” Culverwell said.
Existing on a budget of $73,000, with most of its funding from the Trinity Lutheran Church congregation, the pantry is always in need of both food and monetary donations, particularly cash.
“We need money the most. For every $1 we receive, we can procure over $8 worth of food from Feeding Northeast Florida and Farm Share. Of course, we never turn down food donations. Our ultimate dream is to have a purpose-built facility that would enable us to unload pallets directly from the truck into the facility. At present we unload each pallet outside and bring the food into the pantry with hand trucks,” he said, noting the pantry could also use a new refrigerator. “The one we have was donated by Lutheran Social Services in 2006 and Lord knows how long it was in their warehouse. According to the numbers, it was manufactured in the mid-1980s and is no longer repairable.”
At present, Trinity Lutheran doesn’t receive funding from corporations or major philanthropic supporters, but does receive some financial and other support from Feeding Northeast Florida, Avondale United Methodist Church, Riverside Park United Methodist Church, Riverside Presbyterian Church, Lutheran Social Services, Shepherd of the Woods Lutheran Church, and Farm Share, he said.
As of September 2017, the food pantry started a program in health screening (diabetes and blood pressure testing) in conjunction with Avondale United Methodist Church, AHEC (Area Health Education Centers) Northeast Florida, and ElderSource. The program will provide health screening, nutrition training and instruction in healthy eating.
“Clients from the food pantry will be asked if they want to participate in this free 12-week program that will teach good nutrition habits,” Culverwell said. “A surprising number of clients have no knowledge of how to cook anything from scratch. It’s all frozen food, fast food, high salt.
“That’s why so many are obese,” he said. “We give them what we get and some of what we give out is not healthy food, but it is what it is. Eventually we are going to do cooking classes. If we have an exotic vegetable that we are handing out, we are going to encourage them to bring it over to the church so we can teach them how to cook it.”