By Jim Buchanan
As the shadows grew long outside the Barkers Creek Community Center on the first Wednesday in November, the line of cars with people waiting for food donations grew even longer.
Inside the Center, the Rev. Shane Danner and a group of volunteers were busy setting up the day’s boxes to be handed out. Each box – filled with everything from fresh meat to cheese to butter to canned goods, bread and much more – is designed to provide three meals for a family of five.
Included in each box is a devotional, but there’s no proselytizing at the food events. “No questions asked,” said Danner.
The food program started when COVID shut down the world in March of 2020.
“We started looking for ways to provide to the community, Danner said. “It started with boxes for kids who rode the church van and expanded from there.”
Through September of this year the program had served 6,822 families, a total of 21,213 individuals, with 63,639 meals.
Although there is some donated food and monetary help, the vast bulk of the food is paid for by Cullowhee Valley Baptist Church.
“Our primary source of funding is tithes and offerings from church members,” Food Pantry Co-Director Lee Lillard said. “We do get donations from the community and occasional grants.
“We are a MANNA Partner Agency,” she added. “MANNA sources food, which we purchase at discounted rates, to be distributed to families in need. They help with food safety training and making connections for potential grants and needed supplies.”
Barkers Creek recently became a designated MANNA site. Food is distributed there on Wednesdays and on Mondays at CVBC.
“We purchase food from MANNA when it is available,” Lillard said. “We also purchase food from local grocery stores and food distributors weekly based on what is on sale and what the pantry needs that week.”
It’s an impressive logistical feat. Danner puts in long-haul trucker miles in the church van seeking deals and picking up and delivering food to the sites.
“We travel countless miles going up and down the road buying food for these boxes,” Danner said. “We search ad sales, work with meat department managers to pick up fresh meat and eggs where we can find it. We don’t have volunteers per se but working folks in the church make time in their schedule to go get what is needed and pack boxes to hand out food.
“We give out food we’d want to eat,” Danner said.
One current initiative has the church partnering with GO Grocery Outlet in Waynesville. Through Nov. 15, shoppers can purchase one $5 “Bag of Hope” and get a $5 off coupon on their next $30 purchase. All items in the bag will be donated to CVBC. Danner said 143 bags were sold the first day of the initiative with over 400 having been sold to date.
Another recent effort to help the program comes from K&M Seafood’s Ken Hendershott, who has a donation site in his business; Hendershott also volunteers and provides food items.
Danner says the clientele being served is primarily the elderly and large families. Along with Sylva’s Community Table, United Christian Ministries, Live Forgiven Church and other groups, CVBC is providing food in a time of high inflation that has put a pinch on many.
“We started the food pantry at the beginning of the pandemic when the store shelves were empty,” Lillard said, “so we do not plan to stop for a recession when folks need it the most, like they did in the pandemic. Challenges will be rising food costs and limited availability. However, this is where our faith is demonstrated and we believe with God all things are possible. We go where He leads us, and we believe He has provided and will continue to provide.”
Due to demand, there have been times CVBC has not been able to provide, instances that still visibly upset Danner.
“At Barkers Creek, there was one woman who came in late after she got off work, and we were out of boxes,” Danner recalled. “She said ‘this is the second time.’”
Danner said after hearing that, “I went home and broke down.”
That shouldn’t happen again, thanks to a new environmentally-controlled shed now attached to the center, where food can be safely stored and be available should the day’s boxes run out.
The shed, shelving and refrigerant units were provided by individuals and two churches in the community after Danner put out a Facebook birthday wish asking for $7,000 to make sure no one would be turned away again.
The community responded with over $13,000 in donations.
The program is expanding again.
CVBC has been in talks with Pastor Roberto Fernandez of El Centro Del Senor about how to reach out to the Cowee Mountain side of Jackson County to reach even more people with this food ministry.
Those talks are still ongoing and the goal is for them to be finalized in the next three weeks.
Those wishing to donate or learn more about the food distribution program should call Lillard at 399-9244 or Danner at 506-1205.