When volunteers at Dunwoody United Methodist Church in metro Atlanta finish packing meals for children in need, the Aug. 11 event will set a new record for the church and for the denomination.
One of many congregations that work in partnership with United Methodist-related Rise Against Hunger (formerly Stop Hunger Now), the church has built its annual “Foodstock” into a community tradition. Simpsonwood United Methodist Church in Norcross, Georgia, is a co-sponsor.
A primer for congregations
Holding a meal packaging event does take a lot of preparation, says the Rev. Jenna Kennedy of Dunwoody United Methodist Church.
But there are ways to get everyone involved.
“For the past three months, we’ve had children and senior citizen circles labeling the (meal) bags,” she said. And the night before their Aug. 11 event, youth from Dunwoody and Simpsonwood churches and from the local YMCA will unload the boxes of food.
Want to host an event? Hosts will need to find:
- Enough volunteers to package the meals, at an estimated 125 and 150 meals per person per hour;
- Enough funding to cover the cost of each completed meal;
- About 20 sq. foot of indoor space per volunteer;
- One rectangular table for each 5 volunteers:
Before the day is over, United Methodists across the denomination will be responsible for packing more than 100 million Rise Against Hunger meals.
That’s nearly a quarter of the more than 400 million dehydrated nutritious meals that have been distributed by Rise Against Hunger to partners in 74 countries. The internationally packaged meals, in a total of 36 countries, use food that is locally sourced, the organization says. In 2017, the organization served 1.4 million people and, in addition to meals, distributed $26.1 million in in-kind gifts. Contributors also include corporate and community partners.
Dunwoody’s goal on Aug. 11 is to package more than 300,000 meals and increase its own long-running total to the count to 2.5 million.
Rise Against Hunger’s mission resonates with Dunwoody’s own focus on hunger issues, explained the Rev. Jenna Kennedy, associate minister, and the way the meal-packing program is set up makes it easy for the church to host a multigenerational, accessible event, she said. “Any person of any ability can be here … any walk of life and age of life.
“And it’s fun,” she added. “People look forward to it every year.”
For Sean Taylor and Wade Hatcher, lay members at Dunwoody who co-founded the event in 2012, the bottom line is bringing glory to God while having the opportunity to provide a better quality of life for hungry children.
“It is truly exciting to bring together, on one specific day, approximately 1,250 volunteers,” said Hatcher, who oversees volunteer recruitment and coordinates each of the two-hour shifts. “It’s a very high energy. You can see a 4-year-old working next to a 90-year-old.”
The Rev. Ray Buchanan — the United Methodist pastor who started what was then called Stop Hunger Now after working on food insecurity in the U.S. through the Society of St. Andrew — knew the food-packaging model would appeal to his denomination. Many of the meals are shipped to partner schools to distribute to their students.
“Methodists are very socially oriented,” he explained. “You tie that to social consciousness, which is part of our DNA, and with the desire of all people to make a difference.”
For volunteers and event organizers, Rise Against Hunger’s appeal is both emotional and practical, Buchanan noted. There is “the immediacy of packing those meals and knowing that the next time those bags will be opened will be to feed hungry children,” he said, combined with the efficiency of a turn-key operation. “We can be in and out in four hours.”
United Methodists and Rise Against Hunger
Contributions in U.S. since 2005:
- Number of Events: 4,952 events
- Meals Packaged: 100,000,000 meals
- Volunteers Engaged: 705,241 volunteers
Contributions in 2017:
- Number of events: 639 events
- Meals Packaged: 13,245,210 meals
- Volunteers Engaged: 75,577 volunteers
Top 5 United Methodist partners:
- Canterbury UMC, Birmingham, Alabama — Over 3 Million Meals
- Dunwoody UMC, Atlanta — Over 2 Million Meals
- Vestavia Hills UMC, Birmingham, Alabama — Over 2 Million Meals
- Good Shepherd UMC, Charlotte — Over 1 Million Meals
- Asbury UMC, Raleigh, North Carolina — Over 1 Million Meals
At Dunwoody, that resonates with Taylor, who sees Foodstock as a way to reach busy families, couples and individuals with limited time. “You can come in and be part of a two-hour shift … and feel very rewarded,” he said. “It’s a high-energy, happy atmosphere.”
That experience also can be a gateway “to bigger, broader service opportunities,” he added. After one of the first Foodstock events, for example, four teens who had volunteered decided to celebrate their birthdays by having their families raise money together to fund a 10,000 meal- packaging event.
Taylor has witnessed the end result of such events. In October 2014, he accompanied a Rise Against Hunger delivery to several schools in Belize, where he ate and interacted with the students. The organization also opened a health clinic during that trip.
“One of the exciting things to me now is that our international affiliates are just knocking the ball out of the park,” said Buchanan, who remains on the board of Rise Against Hunger and represents the agency at occasional events.
In South Africa, unlicensed child care facilities who receive the prepackaged meals can earmark money that would be spent on food toward the costs of getting government certification, he said. In the Philippines, Rise Against Hunger has hired several hundred local farmers to grow what is needed for meal production.
The Rev. Steve Hickle, who serves as a “global hunger ambassador” for Rise Against Hunger, will be at Dunwoody on Aug. 11 when the packers take a “pause” at 11 a.m. so the agency can mark the milestone of United Methodist churches packaging over 100 million meals since 2005.
“We are by far the largest faith packaging partner because we've been at it longer, more than any other group of any kind,” he said.
To Hickle, that those 100 million meals represent “thousands of congregations, of all sizes, from those who invest enough for 10,000 meals, which you can do in 2 hours with forty people, to those who do half a million or a million over a weekend.”
For Taylor and others at Dunwoody, it’s also an example of The United Methodist Church’s connectional system at work.
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.