Manna Ministries: Leland Churches Join Forces to Fight Hunger
by Heather Stewart


The morning is cold and wet at the small church in Leland, but the volunteers are bright and smiling. The dedicated volunteers — most of them members of a consortium of area churches — are the backbone of a new effort to establish a food pantry in the North Brunswick area.

Dubbed Manna Ministries, the food pantry project is the result of collaboration between area churches, civic groups, businesses and schools. Manna Ministries relies on food drives and fundraising to provide food for struggling Leland families once each month.

“It’s the third Saturday of the month because that’s when food stamps run out,” explains Pastor Jay Merritt of the Victory Free Will Baptist Church, host site of Manna Ministries.

The idea for Manna Ministries grew from the tremendous need that Leland churches face. “Small churches like us don’t have a large benevolence budget,” says Merritt. As economic conditions have worsened throughout 2008, local churches have become overwhelmed by pleas for help.

“Requests for assistance are up 40 percent this year, and that’s on top of a 30 percent increase last year,” says Joe Cannon, Executive Director of Brunswick Family Assistance, a nonprofit agency that operates a food pantry in Shallotte and also provides help with rent and utilities.

Approximately 14 percent of Brunswick County residents live below the federal poverty level, according to the most recent U.S. Census. For a single individual, that’s an income of less than $10,400 a year.

This past year, many Brunswick County families have been hit with multiple economic troubles, from high gas prices to job losses in the construction industry.

“Low-to-moderate income families are really suffering,” Cannon says.

Brunswick Family Assistance does not have an office in the North Brunswick area, leaving thousands of families without access to help. The agency has become a partner with Leland churches in forming Manna Ministries. It now has a staff member at the Victory Free Will Baptist Church once a week to do intake for families in need. And financial donations
to the agency can be earmarked for Manna Ministries.

“The need is just ridiculous,” says Larry Vaudrin, a Manna Ministries volunteer and member of the Closer Walk United Methodist Church. “I thought that ‘Hey, it’s a modern age. You can’t tell me that people can’t get food.’” But in his work with Manna Ministries, Vaudrin has met families that have absolutely no food in the house. “I had no idea that it was like that,” he says.

Maria Barrios, a volunteer from Johnson Chapel AME Zion, agrees that the need is tremendous. “The wages are so low that families have to decide if they’re going to put gas in the car or eat this week.”

During its first month, Manna Ministries distributed 1,300 pounds of food to 51 families, according to Pastor Merritt. The hope is that the project will continue to attract donations — both of food and money — so that more people can receive aid.

“We’ve got a few more groups involved this month — it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Merritt. “Our ultimate goal is to
have a full-time place where people can come in five days a week.”

Vaudrin agrees that this is just the beginning for Manna Ministries. “These six churches and these organizations and companies are putting hundreds of pounds of food together a month, but it’s still just a speck of what it’s going to be.”

To reach more needy families, Manna Ministries is seeking both food and money. Donations of food can be dropped off at Rieglewood Federal Credit Union, Belville Elementary and Leland Middle School. About six local churches are also drop-off points, but Manna Ministries is hoping to expand that number.

Food donations are ideal for those who have extra food in the pantry. However, Cannon advises donors not to go out and buy food, but instead to send a financial gift. Brunswick Family Assistance can leverage dollars into a great deal of food. “We pay a third of retail price,” he says. “I can buy three cans for your one.”

Manna Ministries is also looking for volunteers to help spread the word.

“The big volunteer effort that we need is not on the big giveaway days — which is fun — but it’s on the Monday through Friday, when we’re out knocking on doors, making phone calls and getting our friends and neighbors interested,” says Pastor Merritt.

And after the holiday giving season is over, sustaining that interest will be the next challenge. “I’m worried about January, February and March — we need to keep the ball rolling,” says Pastor Merritt.

For more information or to get involved, visit www.vfwbc.org
.