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Two phone calls transform church's fading food pantry into thriving community partnership

Twelve Baskets Food Pantry

In 2021 Twelve Baskets Food Pantry, a ministry run for six years solely by All Saints’, Millington, was on the brink of closing – until two unexpected phone calls led to it becoming a thriving community partnership with local government, other houses of worship, and neighborhood volunteers.

Launched in 2015 with a name inspired by the feeding of the 5,000 (“And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full” – Matthew 14:20), Twelve Baskets originally fed hungry neighbors through partnerships with the Long Hill Senior Center, the local Veterans’ Hospital and the food pantry at St. John’s, Dover.

When the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted those partnerships, All Saints’ adapted by inviting neighbors to come to their parish hall by appointment to “shop,” and a small but steady stream of clients did so. However, by 2021 operating Twelve Baskets had become more difficult as several core volunteers moved out of state, and clients began to return to work, reducing the need.

Long Hill Township, the municipality that includes Millington, Stirling, Gillette, and Meyersville, had recently created the position of Community Resource Officer, and in September 2021, All Saints’ met with her to find out about needs she might know about locally.

A few days later, the pastor of the two Presbyterian congregations in Long Hill, First Presbyterian Church in Stirling and Meyersville Presbyterian Church, called All Saints’ to ask if they could help with Twelve Baskets. For many years they had collected food for another organization but were looking to make a change.

Then the following day, a very active local volunteer called; she had a small army of volunteers who had been helping senior citizens with shopping and medical appointments through the worst of the pandemic, and wanted to continue their outreach efforts.

“These two phone calls seemed to us to be a gift of the Holy Spirit,” says the Rev. Vicki McGrath, Rector of All Saints’.

In November 2021, All Saints’ had their first brainstorming meeting with members from all three churches, the Community Resource Officer, the Long Hill School Superintendent, members of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), and other interested residents.

One particular area of concern was that because the local elementary and middle schools do not have cafeterias, children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches were only getting milk, since they were unable either to bring lunch from home or purchase it from outside vendors, as the other children did.

The group decided to expand the food pantry with a much wider volunteer base, including people to drive to the Community FoodBank in Hillside to pick up orders; sort and shelve in-kind donations; set-up, staff and break down the pantry two Saturdays a month; and work on publicity and communications.

The newly revitalized Twelve Baskets Food Pantry opened on the first Saturday of February 2022 with 25 households coming to shop. Today they are serving nearly 50 families twice a month, with on-going donations from all three churches and the wider community, both in-kind and financial.

Twelve Baskets Food Pantry

The items the pantry offers have expanded as well to include personal care items and cleaning supplies. Financial donations received from parishioners and community members enable the food pantry to purchase and distribute a dozen eggs per client household, and to offer milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt. One of the volunteers owns a local farm stand and was extremely generous in providing fresh produce throughout the 2022 growing season. Last Thanksgiving, they provided turkeys and dinner fixings to 40 households; last Christmas, they provided hams, turkeys and holiday baking ingredients to 45 households.

Meanwhile, a small group worked with Community Resources and the School Superintendent to find a solution to the elementary and middle school lunch problem: children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches have them delivered from the cafeteria of the local high school.

Food pantry volunteers meet monthly by Zoom to review operations, set policy, and resolve any concerns that may arise. Sub-committees meet in between to work on operations, communications, and volunteer management. The pantry has a separate checking account held by All Saints’ in order to receive financial donations and purchase food and any equipment that is needed.

The mayor and council of Long Hill Township support Twelve Baskets by allocating a portion of the Community Resource Officer’s time to it, as well as drawing on the township’s CERT volunteers. In turn, this enables the Community Resource Officer to connect with vulnerable township residents. She is then able to bring support services from Morris County to some pantry days via a mobile social services unit called Navigating Hope.

Twelve Baskets Food Pantry has become a community partnership that benefits all involved. Hungry people in the community are being identified and fed. Three church communities have drawn together around a common mission. Township officials are more aware of the actual needs of residents that are often hidden, and they see value in what the churches have to offer.

McGrath says, “None of this would have been possible if All Saints’ was trying to do it on our own. We are still learning. This project has been one of those ‘flying the plane while you are building it’ adventures. The pantry continues to develop, as we grow in our understanding of the needs of the people in our community, and as God leads us. We are very grateful to the Holy Spirit for giving us the nudge we needed to do God’s work in this way that really benefits the whole community.”

Visit Twelve Baskets' Facebook page.