Social ministry teams combat food insecurity

Just after her husband, Brian, passed away unexpectedly, Sheri Renner was asked to get involved with the social ministry team at her parish, St. Louis Bertrand in Foreston. Being part of the team helped her to think about others who were suffering and needed help, she said.

“It is rewarding to help when people hit a tough spot, when they are trying their darnedest and just need a little helping hand,” she said. “After my husband died, I needed a lot of help. Maybe that gives me a little more empathy. I have always enjoyed working with people, being with them and, if there was a way to help them, to do it.”

The social ministry team was formed in 2013 at the twinned parishes of St. Louis in Foreston and St. Mary in Milaca when the Rural Life Leadership Development Initiative began its inaugural session.

Sheri Renner, left, spends a few minutes visiting with Rose Scharber, who benefits from the food delivery program, at her Milaca Park Apartment March 7. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor
Sheri Renner, left, spends a few minutes visiting with Rose Scharber, who benefits from the food delivery program, at her Milaca Park Apartment March 7. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor

This initiative — the brainchild of Kathy Langer, director of social concerns at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud — provides parish clusters training in forming and sustaining social ministry teams.

The Milaca-Foreston team consists of about five people who regularly meet to discuss needs in their parishes and the community.

Through conversations with several local residents, the team learned about a large number of senior citizens and physically challenged people living in Milaca Park Apartments building, nicknamed the “High Rise,” just two blocks from the local food shelf in Milaca. The residents had trouble getting there to pick up the food they needed each month. So the social ministry team implemented a food delivery program.

feed-the-hungryimage“At the High Rise, there are many people living there who have worked all their lives but now they don’t drive or aren’t mobile,” Renner said. “They can’t walk on an icy street carrying a heavy box of food for two blocks. With the food delivery program, we can come to them.”

The program consists of members from the social ministry team who partnered with the local food shelf to bring food to those who don’t have the ability to receive it another way. Food shelf coordinator Dawn Blonigen packages the food for Renner and another team member, Doug Scott, to deliver each month.

“It’s about more than just delivering food,” said Renner, who also works with veteran services for Mille Lacs County.

“We don’t just drop the food off and leave,” she said. “We ask them how they are doing; we have a little small talk. They appreciate the interaction from other people. Sometimes we might be the only person they’ve seen all day. We hope to be a little positive part in their day.”

Rural poverty

Scott, who is one of two Catholic Charities rural life coordinators, said the simple act of bringing a neighbor a plate of food touches all seven themes of Catholic social teaching (see box on page 23).

“Concern for feeding the hungry is deeply embedded throughout our Judeo-Christian tradition,” he said. “In Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Ruth there are specific references to letting those in need, including the immigrant, harvest the edges of fields and to gather what was left behind after the harvesters were through. It’s a practice known as gleaning, and it was a way to ensure that no one went hungry.”

Scott, whose efforts are concentrated in the eastern end of the diocese, says that is where he sees some of the worst poverty statistics in the state. According to Feeding America, he said, Mille Lacs and Kanabec counties each have food insecurity rates nearly 20 percent higher than the state average.

Food security is a general term used to describe having access to enough healthy food. Feeding America also points out that children and the elderly face food insecurity at higher rates than the general population. For example, Minnesota has a food insecurity rate of 10.6 percent, but a 16 percent rate among children.

“We are just beginning to explore the barriers to food security in the eastern end of the diocese,” he said. “For the past year, we have been carrying out specific actions to address the needs in the communities where we work. Now that we have a number of successfully operating programs [like the food delivery program in Milaca-Foreston], we are starting to have community conversations, which will give us insight into the actual factors contributing to food insecurity.”

Currently in the diocese there are seven social ministry teams created through the Rural Life Leadership Development Initiative and more in the process of being formed.

Some are now successfully combating food insecurity in a number of ways, Scott said.

“Several schools have set up backpack food programs which provide scores of children with bags of food each Friday to ensure they eat appropriately over the weekend,” he said.

“One community holds a free monthly community meal. Another social ministry team supports a food shelf for students located at the local high school. One team identifies households where young people tend to congregate over the summer and delivers food to help feed the extra mouths. They also use this opportunity to leave bags of food for kids to take home if they need a little help,” he added.

It is important that everyone understands that poverty, including hunger, exists right here in central Minnesota, Scott said.

“It is our duty as Christians to seek out and assist those who don’t have enough. And while we’re at it, perhaps we can go the extra mile and not just deliver a plate of food to a neighbor in need, but invite them over for the meal,” he said. “The spiritual hunger that feeds off loneliness, a lack of community and the feeling that no one cares is perhaps even more pervasive than physical hunger. We have the capacity to address both.”

Renner agrees.

“We are all here to help and serve each other,” she said. “I think if I can help others whenever and however I can, they will be there to help me when I need it. If we all just take care of each other, we won’t have to worry about taking care of ourselves.”

What does the church say about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty?

By Maureen Otremba
For The Visitor

In Jesus’ account of the judgment of the nations in Matthew’s Gospel (25: 31-46), the Son of Man addresses those on his right and commends them, “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

These righteous, for their part, respond with surprise, apparently not knowing at the time that it was Jesus they were assisting in their good work. The cursed likewise respond with sad disbelief at the revelation that in passing by those in need, they were failing to help Jesus himself.

We, however, have no cause for surprise, since we have this story as a cautionary tale. Furthermore, our duty to provide food and drink to those in need is rooted in centuries of religious obligations, outlined in the Old Testament and carried forward in the New Testament.

Such obligations included the jubilee year of debt forgiveness, the obligation to tithe, the prohibition of loans at interest, the right for the poor to glean in the fields, and the expectation laid out in the Acts of the Apostles that all would share what they had with the community. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes these measures as aimed at reversing the human misery resulting from original sin (CCC 2448-9).

Our challenge is to align our faith with our vision; in other words, to see Christ in the many hungry and thirsty people around us and across the globe. Indeed, the problems of hunger and lack of clean water are so vast as to seem insurmountable. It is tempting to be overcome and throw up our hands in helplessness at the scope of the challenge.

But we must not allow the size of the problem to prevent us from doing what we can. First, we should consider that constant media, along with the countless appeals from charitable organizations that flood our mailbox, have given us a window on the world that people in Jesus’ time did not possess.

For them, feeding the hungry was more apt to center on people in their own communities who were hungry. This doesn’t excuse us from doing our part, but it can help us to determine what “our part” is.

The prayer written by Bishop Kenneth Untener in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero contains the lines: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

So, what can we do about hunger and thirst? How about participating in the CRS Lenten Rice Bowl, or donating to an organization like Living Water International, which digs wells that provide clean water for people in underdeveloped communities? Any effort we make with Jesus in mind will bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.

Maureen Otremba
Maureen Otremba

Maureen Otremba is a writer and workshop presenter and is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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