Works of Mercy

Food Service

ANYONE AT ALL FAMILIAR WITH SCRIPTURE can't escape the call to feed the hungry. We read about Yahweh providing manna for the Israelites in the desert after their flight from Egypt. We learn that Jesus regularly shared meals with his friends and once turned a few loaves and fishes into a feast for a crowd.

Today many U.S. Catholics, nourished physically and spiritually with the Body and Blood of Christ at each Mass, say they are trying to live out this mandate to meet the needs at the close of the 20th century.

They are distributing free groceries and serving hot meals at parish food pantries and soup kitchens. They are forging relationships between farmers and city dwellers to strengthen community food security. They are advocating for just public policies that consider the needs of the poorest of the poor both at home and abroad.

"The problem of hunger has a special significance for those who read the scriptures and profess the Christian faith," the U.S. bishops wrote in their 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All. "From the Lord's command to feed the hungry, to the Eucharist we celebrate as the bread of life, the fabric of our faith demands that we be creatively engaged in sharing the food that sustains life. There is no more basic human need."

The National Catholic Rural Life Conference, based in Des Moines, Iowa, is addressing this complex issue at its source: the farmers who produce our grains, produce, and meat and poultry.

Building on the bishops' call for ensuring the survival of small farmers in an age of large corporate agribusinesses, the organization is promoting direct links between producers and consumers. This is especially crucial amid news of large-scale chicken, meat, and produce contamination both in the United States and Europe, notes NCRLC executive director Brother David Andrews, C.S.C. "If you want good quality food and to know where it comes from, it pays to have a relationship with a local producer," he says.

Diocesan and parish programs around the country focus on feeding the poor at risk of hunger, Andrews says. But he stresses that entire communities also can be at risk when residents are dependent on food trucked in from miles away.

He cites the 1993 Midwest floods as an example: "We were within days of local communities being without food because of the shortage of trains and [other] transportation crossing rivers."

Invested interests
U.S. Catholics on the national as well as diocesan and parish level are also tackling hunger issues with phone calls, letters, and personal visits to Congress, state legislatures, and international bodies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. They are seeking to change some of the conditions blamed for pushing individuals and families into poverty and risk of hunger.

When I was hungry . . .

She looked too young to be the mother of the three ragged children who clung to her coat. She had long blonde hair and white unlined skin, dusted with freckles. As she made her way down the serving line, I thought she looked no older than I did.

Then she opened her mouth to smile at me across the tuna casserole, and she seemed 40 years older.

Her top front teeth were missing.

Her children were quiet as they filled their plates, and I saw them sneaking oranges and hard-boiled eggs into their coat pockets. The woman serving next to me leaned over.

They're not supposed to take food out of here," she whispered, "but we know it's their breakfast."

That night I went home to my dorm room feeling like the richest woman in the world.

Fifteen years later, not much has changed. The St. Benedict the Moor Loaves and Fishes Meal Program continues to serve several hundred people every night in downtown Milwaukee. Famines plague countries like Somalia. People hang around outside of grocery stores, asking for food and money. Politicians still blame the poor for their condition and vow to balance budgets by cutting food programs.

Not much has changed at all. But I have changed. I have changed because I've been there.

Frances Warunek, my grandmother, got out of Poland by the skin of her teeth in 1939. When she died 40 years later, she owned a house full of things and a new car. She traveled, bought gaudy clothing, dyed her hair, wore lots of makeup, and loved America.

Grandma had a thing about food. When she visited from Chicago, she came laden with groceries: honeyed ham, poppy-seed cake, Christmas cookies. She would insist on going to the supermarket, where she would buy dill pickles and kielbasa.

To watch her put away groceries was to watch a woman having a religious experience. She would bustle about, smiling and sneaking candy to the grandchildren. (Now I watch my mother do the same things.)

Then she would cook pierogis or egg-drop soup or borscht made with cream and hard-boiled eggs. You had to eat at least two helpings to please her.

After she became ill and moved to Wisconsin, I got to know her better. I heard about her childhood in Poland and how she and her many siblings often went hungry. I noticed how her refrigerator and cupboards were always full, as if she were hoarding food against some future disaster.

To Grandma (and to my mother), you weren't hospitable if you didn't offer food to a guest. A wedding wasn't a wedding and a funeral wasn't a funeral without a meal. Food was sacred: you didn't waste it or throw it away. You said grace, and you cleaned your plate.

Mother and Grandmother were good cooks. They even did their own canning and freezing. We all learned to cook; some of the best memories of our family center around meals.

My brother went into restaurant management and cooks gourmet meals for Christmas. He even smokes his own fish. My sister makes her own pasta. And I am famous in the family for—as another brother informed me—"being able to take a can of soup and a bag of macaroni and feed 12 people with it." Food influenced us all.

After I went away to college, I got involved in St. Ben's Meal Program. I worked on food drives and felt sorry for people who had it worse than me.

Then one day, it was me. I had a baby and a husband working only part time. My pay covered the rent and the medical bills, but that was all. When my husband and I separated, I went to Social Services to try to get food stamps. The lady at the desk said, "Come back when you quit your job." I turned on my heel and went to my church.

The priest and church secretary filled two bags with groceries from the parish food pantry. Two members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society came to the apartment and interviewed me. They gave me a check for the grocery store so I could buy milk and produce. I cried with relief after I got back from the store.

Every week for a year, members of my church came by with food. Most of it had been prepared at restaurants and was frozen in large plastic bags. Sometimes I didn't know what it was until it was cooked, but I cooked it and ate it gladly. At Christmas they brought a small turkey, bags of canned goods, and small toys for my son.

After I went off the program, these people would stop by to check on me. They were never condescending, and I always looked forward to seeing them. I honestly don't know what I would have done without them. They never asked me for anything in return.

I buy my own groceries now, and I eat well. I don't get to cook for company that much, but I'm famous for my Christmas bread and my spaghetti sauce. My 4-year-old son is so well trained in food budgeting that he doesn't ask me if we can buy bananas, he asks if bananas are on sale.

Now I'm the one who bustles happily around the kitchen, putting away the cans and boxes. Now I exhort my child to eat, I worry when he doesn't, I understand my mother and my grandmother and their focus on food.

bake for St. Ben's every month. And every month, as I bake, I think of a young woman, just about my age, whose top front teeth are missing. And I think of a woman behind her in line... who looks just like me.

Brenda W. Quinn

Reprinted from Salt of the Earth.

One of the most recent campaigns, which takes its inspiration from the Old Testament concept of jubilee, has been the call for debt relief for some of the world's most impoverished nations. Pope John Paul II has been addressing the topic since 1994, and the U.S. bishops issued their own plea for a "jubilee call for debt forgiveness" in a statement last April.

With interest on loans accumulated over a couple of decades, "there is little left over for investment in people" and their food, shelter, health care, and education, says Barbara Kohnen, an adviser to the U.S. bishops on international, economic, and human-rights issues. "We've reached a point where we must do something if we want a future for these impoverished nations."

The U.S. Catholic Conference has produced an educational kit on international debt and the call for debt forgiveness that is being distributed to parishes, educators, and activists. The materials include quotes and facts that can be reprinted in church bulletins.

"This really is, when done best, a commitment people make through their faith," says Joe Martingale, who has organized letter-writing campaigns around debt forgiveness and other hunger-related issues over the past few years at St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Brooklyn. "It has to do with justice in the biblical sense."

Bank on it
In 1967, John van Hengel was just taking care of the hungry in his own neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona the best he knew how. He ended up founding the world's first food bank—a facility for storing and giving out food to soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters throughout the metropolitan area.

Van Hengel explains that he read the gospel: "I bought it and tried it and it worked."

He started small, as a volunteer at the St. Vincent de Paul dining room, where he established programs to pick up excess perishable food from private homes and businesses to feed the hungry. After two years, he was gleaning enough to distribute to other soup kitchens and shelters, and he found himself on some delivery runs until 9:30 p.m. He decided it would be much easier if staff from programs feeding the hungry could come to a central location to pick up the food themselves.

He approached Father Ronald Colloty, the Franciscan pastor of St. Mary's Church downtown, in hopes that the parish would pick up the project. Instead, the parish council gave him the use of an abandoned building and a $3,000 loan to develop the idea himself.

That first year, van Hengel and his volunteers received and distributed about 250,000 pounds of food. A few years later, they started an "emergency food box program," which provided a three-day supply of food sized according to the number of members in the recipient family.

St. Mary's Food Bank, which was named for the parish that helped get it started although it has no formal connection with the church, has since moved to a much larger facility and last year distributed about 14 million pounds of food to meal sites, emergency food pantries, cooperative food-buying programs, and similar programs.

With the local food bank established, van Hengel went on to start Second Harvest, a network of food banks around the country. Now in his mid-70s, he is helping to establish food banks in countries throughout the world.

"The key thing is you're feeding people," says van Hengel. "There's food wasted in every big city."

Priscilla Scheid recalls her own introduction to the food bank concept in the early years as a parishioner at St. Mary's. "I wanted to be a missionary really," she says. "I wanted to help the poor. Then I heard Father Ronald [talk about the food bank] and I said, 'Right here in Phoenix.'"

She went on to direct the food bank and continues to serve as historian. "As a Catholic I do have great faith in Saint Francis," she says. "When you know you can make friends with the homeless, the roustabouts . . . that's your reward."

The food chain
Sister Christine Pratt, rural life director of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, defines her mission as forging connections between the hungry, area farmers struggling to make a living, and city and suburban consumers making decisions about the food they purchase.

"The only people who should worry about what happens in the agricultural community are people who eat," she quips. Yet some city dwellers still don't know where their food comes from, and some rural residents don't realize there are people going hungry in the cities, she says.

With the support of her office, schoolchildren at Our Lady of Lourdes in Toledo are learning about issues of food and hunger by visiting farms, volunteering at the parish's soup kitchen, and collecting pledges for a hunger walk that funds the raising of two steers for meat and soup bones for area soup kitchens.

"We find kids didn't know french fries come from a potato," says Margaret Boltz, a parishioner and member of the diocese's rural life board. "They thought french fries came from McDonald's."

Floyd Hohman, a farmer and student for the permanent deaconate who lives 50 miles southeast of Toledo, meanwhile developed a rural life ministry project that established relationships between livestock producers and the soup kitchens feeding the hungry.

He saw that perfectly good meat was going to waste when cattle were hurt and couldn't make the trip to large food-processing plants. He enticed farmers to donate these animals, collected contributions for processing at a family processor closer to home, and for each animal ended up with 300 to 500 pounds of hamburger to deliver to area food kitchens.

The project evolved out of church-organized dialogues among farmers during the particularly financially stressful 1980s, Hohman recalls. "It didn't solve our problems, but we knew we weren't alone," he says of those supportive sessions.

He since has spoken about farming to students in Catholic schools in the cities, and he is involved with a fundraising effort to build a shrine specifically for farmers seeking a quiet place for reflection.

"It's about the Eucharist," Pratt explains as she considers the rural life ministry programming. "The Eucharist comes to us in the form of bread and wine, and that comes from wheat and grapes. . . . That's the bread of life, and by natural extension we ought to be connected to all life."

What a (debt) relief 
A similar concern for justice prompted Hilary Cavalier to launch the first public policy letter-writing campaign at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Ramsey, New Jersey this past spring.

A friend at another church had shared with her information about Jubilee 2000, a worldwide movement to cancel the debt of impoverished nations. Near the same time, the Newark archdiocese was sponsoring a workshop on an offering-of-letters campaign on the topic by the Christian hunger advocacy group Bread for the World.

The movement touches on some of the troublesome social and environmental issues afflicting heavily indebted nations, according to literature from the many national and international organizations lending support. Debt relief, for instance, would ease hunger by allowing the governments of impoverished nations to invest in development for their people and allowing individuals to grow crops for themselves instead of for export to pay off burdensome debt, these organizations explain.

"I found the whole concept very profound," recalls Cavalier. The Jubilee 2000 movement closely ties into scripture, she says, citing the Leviticus text that calls for freeing slaves and canceling debts every 50 years. She adds, "If you think of Jesus on the cross, he died to pay our spiritual debts."


Food gathered during a 1997 Letter Carrier's Food Drive awaits sorting and distribution at the St. Mary's Food Bank.

Cavalier brought ideas for action to the church staff and got support from Sister Peggy McPartland, a pastoral minister. Together they organized an educational evening with speakers and a video on Jubilee 2000, solicited signatures on a petition for debt relief to be sent to the Group of Seven meeting of industrialized nations, and encouraged parishioners to write letters to their congresswoman to ask her to cosponsor a bill that would provide debt relief to impoverished countries that have borrowed from the U.S. government.

Around 870 people signed the petitions, and about 150 letters were brought to Mass on Father's Day to be forwarded in bulk to Congress, Cavalier says.

Father's Day was significant, Cavalier and McPartland say, because the pope had dedicated this Jubilee Year to praying to God the Father. The Group of Seven meeting—which ended up including a limited agreement to cancel some of the debt of the world's poorest countries—was also being held in Cologne, Germany that weekend.

The offering of letters was incorporated into the church's liturgy that weekend, with a procession of the letters and a blessing over them. "It was very significant for me because it came right after the gospel," McPartland says. "It's really living the gospel, providing a voice for those who have no voice."

Like others calling for debt relief for the most impoverished nations, volunteering at local food banks, or promoting regional agriculture, she is following the U.S. bishops' invitation to "be creatively engaged in sharing the food that sustains life." The core of our faith and the clear mandates in scripture urge all Catholics to do no less.

Marianne Comfort is a freelance writer in Schenectady, New York.

All active news articles