Volunteers at the Richfield United Methodist Church in south-central North Carolina prepare to distribute produce from the local Thomas Family Farm. The purchase of the food was supported by a grant from RAFI's Come to the Table program. (Photo submitted)

A grant program for rural United Methodist Churches in North Carolina wants to help congregations see their food-pantry ministries within the “big picture” of hunger in America.

The project, called Come to the Table, offers mini-grants of up to $1,000 to rural Methodist churches in North Carolina that are providing nutrition assistance to food-insecure families. This round of applications, due February 15th, will be the third since the grant program’s creation at the start of the pandemic. (The application form is online.)

Michelle Osborne, program manager for Faith-Based Partnerships at the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI), said the grants must be spent on purchases from local farmers, restaurants, or businesses, not from national chains. 

In addition to supporting the local food economy, Come to the Table is helping faith leaders study the root causes of hunger. On January 28th, 2021, RAFI launched the first session of the School for Food Justice, Faith, and Storytelling with the Center for Story-based Strategy. 

“We like to say ‘having a food pantry is great but having a living wage in your community, so that community members don’t need the food pantry, is even better,’”  Osborne said. 

Part of the grant program’s focus grew out of changes caused by the pandemic. When most of Come to the Table’s outreach was deemed unsafe in March of 2020, the group shifted gears. They decided their unique set of relationships put them in a position to kill two birds with one check, said Osborne. 

“We can get churches to get meals and produce to food insecure people,” said Osborne, “while simultaneously supporting farmers who need to make a living.”

The Boone, North Carolina, United Methodist Church worked with local restaurants to prepare meals for food-insecure families. (Photo submitted)

New partnerships between faith leaders and farmers will be the most lasting impact of the program, said Osborne. “Come to the table is really about connections,” she said. “We really want to facilitate these relationships, not just give people $1,000 one time.”

Demographic changes have led to major class and racial disparities between the Asheboro, North Carolina, Central United Methodist Church, and the neighborhood surrounding it, said Randy Lee, pastor of youth ministries. “The majority of our church population are white and 50 or above,” said Lee. “A lot of retired folks.” 

The church now works closely with the local elementary school, said Lee, to help provide food to children at risk of hunger. Last summer, Asheboro Methodist received a Come to the Table mini-grant that helped them partner with Gabor farms in Rockingham, North Carolina, to supply 30 families with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Distributing this produce, said Lee, was one of the easiest outreach events he’s ever done. “I almost felt guilty,” Lee said. “RAFI provided the funding and hooked us up with Clarence Dubois down at Gabor farms who provided the food.”

Dubois and Lee are still in touch. “We emailed back and forth last week,” said Lee. “We’re hoping to do something again maybe in February.”

“He’s there for us,” said Lee. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Osborne said engaging churches in hunger-policy work is a long-term effort. “We’re talking about narrative change and how we can use stories to change our perceptions and move toward actions,” said Osborne. 

Grant applicants will be notified of decisions by March 15, 2021. Come to the Table will prioritize churches that have not received past rounds of funding, and projects lead by or serving people of color. The program is funded by the Duke Endowment.