In Iredell County, these meals come with a blessing

When the pandemic brought an end to Bethel UMC’s community dinner nights, a group of volunteers came up with a way to keep the ministry going. Now it is more popular than ever.

A drive-through in the church parking lot has become a place to connect with folks in need of a meal and friendly word.

Known as Lookout Community Café, the ministry hands out 275-300 free meals one Saturday every month, with about 90 of those delivered to shut-ins in the community.  Most recipients are not church members, but folks facing tough times in this rural corner of Iredell County. Previously, in-person dinner gatherings drew 50 to 60 people.

“We’ve been able to reach so many more,” said Rev. Anne Tavenner. “We did 150 meals the first night and it just grew. We put calls out to give us names of people who need a little support. It’s not just a matter of feeding them, but also reaching out to say, ‘Hey, we know you’re here.'”

Volunteers deliver meals to Heroes House, a transitional housing community for Statesville military veterans, as well as a motel that serves people struggling to get by.

Modeling ‘the heart of Christ’

At the center of the effort is Nicole Beam, a lifelong member of Bethel UMC who teaches in the Hickory Public Schools. Beyond Bethel, Nicole also finds time to to volunteer with Haywood Street Congregation, an urban ministry in Asheville.

“Nicole truly has a servant’s heart,” Pastor Anne said. “She is always noticing ways that we can reach out to others — especially with our youth. She models the heart of Christ.”

In addition to meals, volunteers hand out devotional materials and information on Bethel UMC and its partner churches. There’s also an opportunity to visit a prayer tent hosted by the pastor.

“Reaching out in love to our neighbors with a meal is an important step in making disciples for Jesus Christ,” Nicole said. “There must first be a connection made and relationship forged.”

The Foundation’s Reynolds Ministry Fund served as a sustaining partner, providing a grant to remodel the kitchen and replace aging equipment. The level of interest led the church to start a freezer meal ministry for shut-ins and a project to distribute community blessing boxes filled with canned goods and personal hygiene items.

“We started out as a small prayer group, just asking, ‘What can we do?'” said co-leader Jana Cook, who oversees meal planning and preparation. “And it’s turned into so much.”

Other congregations have drawn inspiration from Bethel’s example. At First UMC in Troutman, a drive-through ministry called “Food for Thought” has distributed 1,150 meals since September on the southern end of Iredell County, including regular deliveries to a women’s shelter and staff at a local retirement home.

Based on the level of need they’ve encountered, Pastor Jeff Hamrick said volunteer leaders hope to expand the program to 200 meals a month.

Bridging the gap

North Carolina has the 8th highest rate of food insecurity in the nation. Before the pandemic, 12 percent of people in Iredell County were considered food insecure, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks and food pantries. The economic fallout from the coronavirus has left nearly 14 percent on the brink of hunger.

One major reason why food insecurity didn’t go up more was that the government stepped in with stimulus payments, increased funding for SNAP and expanded unemployment benefits. That aid is now drying up.

That’s why it’s so important for congregations to help bridge the gap, particularly in rural areas where people live in relative isolation.

“Some people are struggling with food, but a lot of them are struggling with connection,” Pastor Anne said. “Since COVID, there’s been a disconnect. And so it’s not just feeding them, but also connecting with one another — keeping community.”

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