The New Haven Seventh-day Adventist Church in Overland Park, Kansas, has helped address food insecurity in the greater Kansas City area since 2011. Over the nine-year span, its food pantry “Renewed Hope” has grown from a literal closet filled with food to give to people in need who happen to drop by the church to a robust operation that has become a community-staple.
“At first it served 10 to 15 people a week, but then the pantry expanded to up to 800 at a time prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mark Tamaleaa, associate pastor of New Haven, who also leads young adult and community service ministries.
With the reputation the church has built for nearly a decade as a large, reliable food assistance service for the community, it was deemed an essential service by the local government when stay-at-home orders went into effect. Many smaller pantries operated out of churches were closed under executive orders.
“Their local city officials designated Renewed Hope as an essential service because of their relationship with the community, and they were known for being open once a week,” said Roger Wade, director of Adventist Community Services for the Mid-America Union Conference. “In addition, once we received the grant the North American Division gave to conferences operating food pantries, we identified Renewed Hope as one of the three ministries that would receive funding.”
Once word got out that Renewed Hope was one of the few food pantries operating in the area after the realities of the novel coronavirus disease impacted the local economy, the need for food skyrocketed — seemingly overnight.
“We went from 800 a week to 2,500 people. On our heaviest day, we served more than 4,000 people,” said Tamaleaa. “We needed to quadruple our output.”
After the two-hour distribution ends at noon every Tuesday, leaders and volunteers begin the process of restocking their supply of food. Between weekly visits to a local food bank partnered with Feeding America, and donations from grocery stores and farms, Renewed Hope collects and gives away 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of food a week.
“We don’t ever discriminate when people come for food. All we ask for is their last name and the number of children, adults, and senior citizens in their families. We collect that information for record keeping purposes as required by the food bank,” said Tamaleaa.
With the influx of people getting food assistance comes increased vehicle traffic to the church. Sometimes as many as 600 cars are lined up on Tuesday mornings to visit Renewed Hope. Tamaleaa says the church has committed to being good neighbors by ensuring that driveways aren’t blocked by the cars. The thoughtfulness has even been reciprocated.
“Some of our neighbors have become volunteers. We’ve also received donations and letters of affirmation. They see what we’re doing and want to help be part of the solution,” said Tamaleaa.
Obstacles and Logistics
Officially operating an essential service with the support of the local government and Adventist Church did not begin without its challenges. The vast majority of the volunteers who ran the pantry were senior citizens. With the older population considered high risk of contracting COVID-19, however, they were no longer able to continue volunteering.
“We put out a call for help. We asked for young families, teenagers, and young adults. Of the 80 to 90 volunteers we have a week, about half are under 35 years old,” Tamaleaa said. “A lot of people also come from the community. These are people who are not connected to the church at all. They’re looking to be part of something bigger than them.”
“I do worry every week if we’ll have enough volunteers, but every week, they show up. It’s been an awesome thing to see people come together. It’s the only way it’s been able to succeed,” said Tamaleaa.
Renewed Hope provides its clientele with a variety of fresh produce, including bananas, pineapples, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and asparagus. They also receive canned and uncooked beans, rice, bread, pasta and pasta sauce. Clients can also choose from different protein options — beef, chicken, and vegetarian.
“When they show up, they get a trunkful of food for healthy meals that can hold them over for two weeks,” said Tamaleaa
Tamaleaa says New Haven is committed to providing food for its community for the long haul. According to local experts from Feeding America, the economic effects on families as a result of the pandemic will be felt for at least two more years. The high volume of food will still need to be distributed on a weekly basis.
“As long as this church is in this community, we’re committed to serve. We’ll do it for long as it takes, said Tamaleaa. “I draw inspiration from the founders of this pantry. It is the perfect example of standing on the shoulders of giants before me. They were motivated to do what God put on their hearts. Little did they know that this pantry would become one of the most important things in this community.”