Love is so easily communicated through food.
Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies. Mom’s chicken and dumplings. A sweet treat taken to a teacher. All give a warm, fuzzy feeling to the recipient.
Imagine then the impact of a filling, nutritious meal on people who’d been unsure they would even have anything to eat that day.
That’s something that members and other volunteers at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Fayetteville have been able to envision for the past seven years.
Since 2010, the church has packaged over 750,000 meals of rice, soy protein, dried vegetables and vitamins for Rise Against Hunger, an international hunger relief organization that distributes food and aid to needy people in developing countries around the world.
And it’s gearing up for another packaging session on October 28.
The packing sessions “remind us we are blessed and privileged,” said Mick Noland, a member of First Presbyterian’s Witness Committee, which oversees the church’s mission work.
“We wake up called to be appreciative of what (we) have and try to give back,” he said.
Many churches in the area and around the country pack meals for Rise Against Hunger, previously known as Stop Hunger Now. The Raleigh-based organization salutes them all as Hunger Champions and partners in its mission to end worldwide hunger by 2030.
But First Presbyterian is by far the organization’s largest partner in this area, said Maddie Laing, a spokeswoman for Rise Against Hunger.
Noland said the church shares the organization’s view that just because many of the world’s neediest are out of our sight, they should not be out of our minds.
Chronic hunger is deadly. Every 3.6 seconds, one person – usually a child – dies of starvation, according to UNICEF, the United Nations agency that provides aid to mothers and children in developing countries. About 842 million people are estimated to suffer from hunger and 98 percent of them are in developing countries.
Rise Against Hunger not only provides meals in such areas, it works to help people in those areas develop sustainable business and agricultural practices so they can better feed themselves.
Noland said it’s “teaching a man to fish and not just giving him a fish.”
The meal-packaging efforts aren’t just one-way gifts. For the historic church, founded in 1800, the efforts are an opportunity for fellowship among members of all ages.
“It’s a real uniting event and we love to be a part of that,” said senior pastor Michael Garrett.
Children are encouraged to help. The experience has an obvious and positive impact on the young ones, said Britany Spivey, director of the children’s ministry at First Presbyterian. She said the children bubble with excitement when asked to describe their jobs at the packaging event – as well as the fun they had building forts from leftover boxes.
It also has an effect on the adult volunteers.
“With a lot of mission work that people do, most of their involvement is not more than writing a check,” said Jonathan West, the church’s associate pastor for youth and young adult ministry.
The meal packaging provides a more hands-on experience.
“It’s a tangible way of giving,” West said.
The church welcomes volunteers from outside its congregation. Noland said representatives from other churches sometimes come to see how to mount similar packaging efforts at their churches.
Where exactly do these meals go?
All over the world. Following the tsunami in Haiti, the church quickly pumped out meal packs that could be provided to devastated families. Noland said the church trusts Rise Against Hunger to pick locations that need such help.
“Our strategic partners know where meals need to go,” he said. “When there is a disaster, they have the resources to get a million meals there in days.”
Once, when church members were doing missionary work in Haiti, they saw meals being delivered that had been packaged in Fayetteville. They knew that because the meals were marked First Presbyterian Fayetteville.
“It’s that a-ha moment,” Noland said. “They actually made it!”
How does it work?
Via an assembly line that Henry Ford would be proud of, Noland said.
Parked beside hot cups of coffee, adults scoop into bags enough rice, soy protein, dried vegetables and vitamins to feed six people. The bags are weighed by beaming children, then heat-sealed by adults and stacked into giant boxes. After every 1,000 meals packed, a large gong sounds to celebrate.
Thirty thousand meals are usually packed in two to three hours and the effort is generally wrapped up before lunch..
What would you tell your volunteers?
“Thank you for caring enough to help others, and for doing it willingly and cheerfully,” Noland said.
Garrett and Noland said everyone in the First Presbyterian Church family – from adults to giggly children to the custodians who clean up afterwards – is key to the meal-packaging efforts. And they’re all greatly appreciated.
How can I help?
Come and lend a hand. A few hours of your time can change the world.
“Regardless of where you’re coming from, what religion, you can work comfortably with us on a shared goal,” Garrett said.
The next meal-packaging event is October 28th at 9 a.m. in the church’s fellowship hall. Just show up!
First Presbyterian Church is at 102 Ann Street in downtown Fayetteville. For more information, call 910-483-0121.