The first Saturday of each month, people line a covered walkway at Grace Community Church (GCC), waiting to peruse tables stocked with bags of food, fresh produce and articles of clothing.
GCC is a food distribution location for the Central California Food Bank’s Neighborhood Market Program, which is structured like a farmers’ market and delivers fresh produce to areas in need.
In 2019, GCC gave away 121,550 pounds of food, which is one way the church is helping meet needs in its Sanger, California, community.
While GCC has participated in food distribution in the past, the church’s most recent involvement began about two and a half years ago, according to GCC pastor Paul Canaday.
When two local food distributions ceased operations, GCC stepped up to meet a specific need.
“I was volunteering with the Good Neighbor Center, which had been providing food and clothing in the Pinedale area of Fresno for over 20 years, when the Central California Food Bank reached out for ideas in Sanger,” Canaday says.
The church and elders were immediately on board with the idea of hosting a market, Canaday says, and GCC agreed to provide a location for food distribution through the Central California Food Bank (CCFB), whose mission, according to its website, is to “fight hunger by gathering and distributing food, engaging in partnerships that advance self-sufficiency, and by providing community leadership on issues related to hunger.”
Markets make a difference
According to the Food Research and Action Center, in 2016-17 the city of Fresno and surrounding counties ranked third nationally with a food hardship rate of 22 percent, behind Bakersfield, Calif. (23.2 percent) and Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Penn. (22 percent).
Robin Allen-Maddox, CCFB communications specialist, says one in four people in the Fresno community are hungry, with one in three being children. Neighborhood Markets, like GCC hosts, are making a difference.
“Neighborhood Markets are extremely important for rural communities, as access to grocery stores can be limited,” Allen-Maddox says. “Having the opportunity to receive fresh produce at no cost is life-changing for residents—providing a better and longer quality of life.”
In 2017-18, the CCFB provided more than 35 million pounds of food through its partners, according to its website.
“These pantries and the volunteers who run them help us serve over 280,000 people each month,” Allen-Maddox says. “People are hungry for so many reasons—lost jobs, health issues, rent hikes and more. The food we provide allows people to have a little more wiggle room for unexpected bills, medications and unforeseen events.”
Market depends on volunteers
Each market Saturday, a truck carrying food arrives at GCC 30 minutes before the start of the market. The food for the market is primarily fresh produce and comes from the CCFB and donations from members of the GCC congregation.
After the pallets of food are unloaded from the truck, volunteers open, sort and bag the food and begin signing in people prior to the market’s 9 a.m. opening.
An average of 100 families sign in to receive food each month, Canaday says, but that is only the beginning of a ripple effect.
“According to what they tell us, that means about 400 family members are blessed,” Canaday says. “We encourage them to share it with other family members and neighbors.”
To ensure the process runs smoothly, GCC relies on volunteers, including about 10 to 15 from GCC and others from the community, some of whom also receive food.
“I would say that it runs smoothly because of the communication we have with the Central California Food Bank, people who have over 20 years of experience, having the best volunteers and lots of prayer,” Canaday says.
The church distributes an average of 11,000 pounds of food each month, in addition to clothing and other donated items.
On one Saturday before Christmas, a man brought his grandson to the market. The boy, who was about 5 years old, Canaday says, asked his grandfather for a bicycle. It just so happened that a family from church had donated some small bikes their children had outgrown, and a volunteer blessed the young boy with his first bike.
On another occasion, volunteers offered prayer for someone at the market.
“One Saturday while we were cleaning up I (came) upon two of my elders praying for a man who had been sharing how hard things had been,” Canaday says. “I know that this had an impact on the man, but it also had an impact on me. We are blessed to be able to serve and to have such great partners.”
Plans for the future
Canaday says GCC plans to continue the market in 2020 and would like to help other churches start food and clothing ministries. A verse Canaday says he has identified for this ministry in 2020 is Psalm 115:1: “Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.”
“In 2020 we are calling these Saturdays ‘Good Neighbor Saturdays,’” Canaday says. “It is more than just food. It is also clothes and a caring heart.… It’s all about Jesus.”