By Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III
Special to the AFRO

Feeding the hungry has been a cornerstone of the Christian church since the very beginning.  In fact, long before nonprofit organizations and government agencies showed up on the scene to address hunger, churches had been in the fight for food security for many generations.  From soup kitchens, to food pantries and spaghetti dinners, churches have been not only praying for “our daily bread” – but providing it as well.

One of the latest and largest displays of the church returning to its roots on this issue began during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.  

Churches, in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food banks, local governments and corporations served as central sites for food distribution in their communities during the pandemic. As truckloads of donated food made its way to Baltimore, churches, inspired by their faith, signed up and lined up to help get it to the people.  

One of my proudest moments as a pastor during the pandemic was seeing other pastors posting pictures and videos on social media proudly displaying their congregations putting their faith in action by passing out boxes of produce in their community.  

Church leaders were showing off the distribution systems they had devised with their members, the data collection processes they implemented and the ways that they repurposed their unutilized buildings for the food operation.  

I beamed with pride.  

This was a far cry from the rightly critiqued clergy conversations of yesteryear where pastors would boast about how many members they had at their church.  Now clergy weren’t bragging about how many members their buildings could hold, but rather they were testifying about how many people they were feeding.  This, to me, felt like something closer to the heart of God.  

For the first two years of the pandemic, food ministries at Black churches across Baltimore (and beyond) were expanding and becoming one of the central aspects of ministry.

Then, the money started drying up.

I received a call from the Maryland Food Bank in late 2022 letting me know that the funding for their pandemic grant was ending.  They had spent $40 million providing food for free to churches and community organizations to distribute, but now that grant money was gone. Their community partners would no longer receive food for free.  

On the day after Christmas 2022, local and national outlets started publishing the disturbing news about the money being gone.  I started hearing from churches that were worried about the hundreds of families that they had been serving since the pandemic began with the Food Bank’s support.  They wondered how they would continue to support the families without funding.  Maryland was not unique with regard to grant money running out for food programs.  Food banks and other organizations across the United States started sharing similar news.  

Then more bad news came. 

On March 1 the extra funding added to food stamp benefits during the pandemic, expired.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) lowered food stamp benefits back to pre-pandemic levels which resulted in people receiving $85 to $250 less per month for groceries.

The funding dried up, but the need remains.

This shows the limits and deficiencies of charity.  While valuable in short-term emergencies, food charity is not a sustainable solution for food insecurity.  Food charity will not fix food insecurity at its root.

However, all is not lost.  

These past three years have helped us to reimagine what ministry can look like as it relates to food.  Our churches have the ability to set up food storage and distribution systems.  Our church budgets can be shaped to prioritize community food needs.  Our church members have willingness, know-how and professional expertise to run food operations.  Our pastors not only have a heart for the hungry, but especially now on this side of the pandemic have greater concern for lasting solutions to food insecurity that they’ve seen with their own eyes.

Many of the components of the basic infrastructure that we’d need to fix food insecurity in Black Baltimore is already in place.  Our churches have land, kitchens, classrooms, vans, parking lots, relationships and people.  We can get in the driver’s seat of shaping the food environments of our own communities.  

While no one church could tackle such a giant by itself, working together we could fix food insecurity in our city.  This is precisely the mission of the Black Church Food Security Network.  We help churches to start gardens on their land, host Black farmers markets, organize tours of Black farms and buy in bulk from Black growers.  So far, we have more than 200 congregations and 125 Black farmers across the U.S., but Baltimore is our home.

As external funding has dried up, Baltimore churches have an opportunity now to combine our resources, leverage our relationships and work together in the spirit of unity to fix food insecurity in our city.  If we do this, it will show a model that ministries across the nation would gladly mimic and once again demonstrate the power of faith for food justice.

Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, III is the founder and Executive Director of The Black Church Food Security Network. 

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Rev. Heber Brown III