After the food is donated and the tables are stocked, it’s up to volunteers at St. John Lutheran Church to make sure food insecure Seward County residents have enough to eat.
Once a month, a group of nearly 25 volunteers gathers at the church to help distribute food brought in by the Food Bank of Lincoln as a part of its mobile distribution network.
St. John has served as the distribution center in Seward County for around three years. According to Juanita Ebert, deaconess of the church, St. John picked up the partnership with the Food Bank of Lincoln after another local church had to discontinue its participation.
“I’m not sure if [the Food Bank of Lincoln] just randomly contacted the other churches, but somehow they contacted us, asked if we’d be interested, and we said yes,” she said.
Ebert said serving as a distribution center aligns with the mission of the church.
“Sort of our mission statement at church is to proclaim and practice the love of Christ, and to us, helping hungry people have food to eat, which is a very basic human need, is one of the ways that we share the love of Christ,” she said. “We want to be able to do this for people in the community, not just for church members.”
Volunteers have a myriad of reasons for helping out.
“When I retired three years ago, I was looking for ways to keep myself busy in a helpful way,” Cindy Lemke, one of the volunteers, said. “I tried different things, and this is one of the things that I stuck with.”
Ruth Walsh, another volunteer, agreed.
“You may be retired, but you’re never really retired,” she said. “I’m better off if I’m busy.”
It is not just retired people who help distribute the food, though. According to Ebert, students from Concordia University sometimes help out.
“Some of the professors like to have their students come on over and experience it,” she said. “We do have a high school student who comes every month, and she enjoys doing it.”
Kandy Kreiser and her husband also volunteer each month.
“It’s just something we feel we can do for the church,” she said. “I enjoy talking to the people.”
Walsh also enjoys the interactions she has with the people.
“They’re always very pleased,” she said. “I guess that’s what makes it kind of fun.”
The Food Bank of Lincoln relies on volunteers like those at St. John to serve the community.
“We could not do our work without the volunteers,” Michaella Kumke, Food Bank of Lincoln community engagement director, said. “We serve 16 counties in southeast Nebraska, and here in Seward County, this faithful group of volunteers truly makes it possible for us to be here.”
Kumke has referred to Seward County volunteers as a “shining star volunteer group.”
“Two of the food bank’s core values are collaboration and compassion, and I think just watching this group…you see those values come through,” she said. “They care about making sure everything is ready and set up, they care that when people come in…that they feel welcomed into this space.”
Ryan Meyer, a Food Bank of Lincoln outreach coordinator, agreed that the volunteers are welcoming.
“I work with them every month, and they’re one of my favorite groups of volunteers, and I do 20 of these a month,” he said. “I just can’t stress enough how awesome these guys are. I mean, they are truly one of a kind that I work with. They’re willing to help. They’re here hours before it even starts.”
Part of what makes the St. John volunteers so highly regarded is that they find funds each month to purchase household goods not supplied by the Food Bank of Lincoln.
“Thrivent Financial has what they call a Thrivent Action Team grant where you can apply for some kind of a service project, and you get a $250 card that works like a debit card,” Ebert said. “We’ll use that $250 to buy either cleaning supplies or personal care items because that’s not generally included in this distribution, and yet those things really add to your grocery bill.”
The representatives from the Food Bank of Lincoln said this is a testament to the volunteers’ sense of service.
“Buying stuff out of their own pockets—you don’t see that a lot of places,” Meyer said. “That makes me happy. It shows that they do actually care about their community.”
“They go above and beyond to serve neighbors here in this county and in this community, so it’s a testament to who they are,” Kumke said.
Volunteers go through a short training on how to be welcoming, non-discriminatory and non-judgemental. After that, volunteers can help distribute the food by communicating how many of each item people can take or by helping people take the food out to their vehicles.
St. John runs its own food pantry, Christ’s Cupboard, and leftover food from the distribution is sometimes donated to the pantry, something Ebert said is helpful.
“That’s been a big help to the pantry, it helps to supply that,” she said.
Kumke said the Food Bank of Lincoln supports local pantries like Christ’s Cupboard throughout its service area.
“What people don’t realize often is that the Food Bank of Lincoln is behind so many of the mobile food distributions and pantries even, so donations…help us purchase product at a significantly reduced price and that comes right back to these communities and counties that we serve,” she said.
For every dollar donated, the Food Bank of Lincoln is able to supply three meals.
Besides making donations and volunteering time, Kumke said people can serve the food bank by being understanding.
“Hard times hit us all and affect us all differently,” she said. “We never know why one person is at a mobile food distribution. There are so many factors.”
Ebert said St. John enjoys being a part of the distribution network.
“We’re just happy to be able to do it, and I love the fact that the volunteers really enjoy what they’re doing,” Ebert said.
The Seward food distributions take place in the St. John Lutheran Church fellowship hall at 919 N. Columbia Avenue on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 4:30 p.m.