As the economic crisis deepens, so does the need for basic human needs. Families, service providers, agencies, and not-for-profits are all facing challenges of incredible proportions. Religious institutions have often stepped up to the plate when a void needed to be filled. Wesley Church & Foundation, one of our community’s campus ministries with a social justice purpose, is one such organization.

Located on the corner of Green Street and Goodwin Avenue in Urbana, Wesley Church & Foundation operates a food pantry on the third Thursday of each month. What started out as a reasonably small effort has grown exponentially into more of a marketplace for those living in extreme poverty in Champaign County. The food pantry currently provides food and other services to roughly 900 individuals.

Foodbanks around the country have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of people served each month. Thousands of families and individuals who have never had to utilize the services of a foodbank are now standing in line. Recent statistics from the Eastern Illinois Foodbank state that 50% of those served by the foodbank have reported needing to choose between paying heating bills or buying food. What’s more, 39% have had to choose between paying for food or paying their rent or mortgage, and 29% have had to choose between paying for food or paying for medicine or medical care.

Every little bit helps, be it financial contributions directly to Wesley Foundation or your time as a volunteer. And although food donations are wonderful, donating funds goes much further for each dollar that is spent. If you are not in a position to give financially, consider volunteering your time.  With the pantry’s numbers growing very quickly in the past few months, a decline in need is not likely to occur anytime soon.

Smile Politely interviewed Jeff Scott, volunteer at Wesley Church & Foundation, and a PhD student and adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois' School of Social Work.

Name: Jeff Scott
Age: 33
Position with Wesley Church & Foundation: Chair of the Church Council, Foundation Board member

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Smile Politely: What does Getting Things Done mean to you?

Jeff Scott: To me, this means individuals working together, acting on social justice values and beliefs, to instigate social change.

SP: How many staff and volunteers does the food pantry currently have?

JS: There is no paid staff. It is an all-volunteer program. There are so many tasks involved with administering a food pantry: community outreach, volunteer recruitment and training, placing food orders, receiving food deliveries, storage, stocking, staging the distribution and carrying it out, clean-up, and much more. We rely on a pool of about 100 volunteers. Still, more hands on deck are needed. 

SP: How did you first get involved with Wesley Church & Foundation and the food pantry?

JS: My late parents served Wesley in the 1970s; my dad as associate pastor and my mom as a Christian educator. When I relocated to the area eight years ago, it was like returning to the fold. I became active in Wesley's Christian Social Action Ministry, and, eventually, was asked to chair the Church Council.

The food pantry was established about two years ago in response to unmet need. Not many know this: Champaign County has one of the highest rates of extreme poverty in the state. Correspondingly, hunger and food insecurity is a hidden, local problem. The Eastern Illinois Food Bank (EIFB) estimated that its sponsored programs reached less than a third of its targeted population. One significant barrier was that area food pantries did not function after standard work hours. Donna Camp, a Wesley member, came to the conclusion that Wesley could fill this service gap; the food pantry was her brainchild and moved forward under her guidance and that of Rev. Dan King Crede.

My original role was to get Wesley institutional support behind Donna's grassroots effort and leadership. Now, like so many other Wesley folks, I'm a frontline volunteer.

SP: Explain how this food pantry is unique from others in our community. What would you say is the food pantry's greatest accomplishment to date?

JS: It was the first food pantry open in the evening. A couple others have been launched recently. At Wesley, we distribute food from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. Toward the end of the month, paychecks are spent and Food Stamps depleted, so the timing is strategic. We don't turn anybody away. Eligibility to shop at the Wesley pantry is based on self-reported income of less than 150% of the poverty level. We make no assumption about how deserving a patron is, whereas many relief organizations subject potential beneficiaries to formal income tests or more rigorous screening, which can be dehumanizing.

While its primary goal is feeding people, our program is broader in scope. Volunteers facilitate family resource stations to provide information on topics such as nutrition, housing, public aid, community resources for children and the elderly, adult education opportunities, and personal finance. On occasion, on-site assistance with income tax preparation and voter registration is available. Each month we organize a reading and storytelling area (children also get a book to take home). We have also done considerable outreach to the Latino community, which is growing and yet very underserved.

Most food pantries prepackage an assortment of nonperishable food and simply hand it out. But this approach is both impersonal (there is no element of choice in food selection and little human interaction) and wasteful (after it’s taken home, unwanted food gets thrown away). At the Wesley pantry we emphasize patron self-determination and choice. We purchase, and patrons then choose from, a wide range of food, including nonstandard items, like baked goods, fresh produce, and some organic products. Furthermore, we value personal relationships with food pantry visitors: waiting in line, we hear life stories and about current circumstances; while shopping, we learn about their favorite meals and cooking methods; loading up their cars or helping them to the bus stop, we hear thank yous and exchange sincere goodbyes. These experiences have meaning and can be very transformative. As such, the pantry is, at the same time, a gift from Wesley to the community as well as a gift of the community to the church.   

There is some national evidence suggesting that food pantries are learning to adopt this type of service delivery model. I think the Wesley pantry is ahead of the curve. In fact, the EIFB now uses our pantry as a case example in working to develop new programs.

SP: Have you seen a dramatic expansion in the need. If so, what key factors have led to this?

JS: In the first year of pantry operation, patron numbers rose steadily from month to month, probably in relation to the program's reputation spreading by word of mouth. But this year, the number of people we serve on a monthly basis has grown exponentially, over 400%, to more than 900 people. The only reasonable explanation for this trend is the tanking economy and its harsh impact on those at margins of the market.            

SP: What are some of the food pantry's goals for the coming months?

JS: Our goal is to simply sustain the current level of operation and to expand as needed. The rising level of need is stretching the congregation's resources, in terms of both volunteer power and finances. The cost to feed one individual for a week is about $6.50, which translates to well over $5,000 for high-volume distribution nights. Fortunately, the Wesley Evening Food Pantry was just accepted into Community Shares of Illinois, which means, eventually, employees of UIUC, Parkland, and various companies will be able to donate directly to our program. In the meantime, we are looking for 12 organizations that would each be willing to sponsor a distribution night by supplying volunteers and funds to help offset program costs. Sponsors will be acknowledged at the pantry on the evening of service, as well as in a monthly newsletter and annual report. Of course, we'd also like to share our food pantry with any individuals who wish to physically lend a hand or subsidize costs.

SP: Name three things people do not know about Wesley Church and Foundation?

JS: We are the original Wesley Foundation, established in 1913. You could say that Urbana is the birthplace of institutional Methodist campus ministry.

The Church and Foundation are separate entities, with the latter owning the building and property.

We help to sponsor Africa University, which opened in 1992 as the first private university in Zimbabwe.

SP: Are there other local or global not-for-profit organizations whose work you admire?

JS: There are many. Locally, I admire the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, as they epitomize direct action organizing. Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights is an amazing state level organization. Heartland does many things well as an organization. I greatly appreciate how they blend equal parts of policy analysis and legislative advocacy with community organizing and development.

Nationally, I most respect the Economic Policy Institute, one of the only Washington think tanks to focus on the conditions of low- and middle-income workers. Globalization has really underscored the importance of work done by Amnesty International and Doctors without Borders. I could go on and on.

SP: What keeps you motivated in trying times such as these?

JS: Oh, I'm a pretty cynical person and I take personally the setbacks inherent with social justice work. But beneath the surface I'm an optimist, and, when I'm objective and think long-term about social progress, I'm convinced that my kids are going to grow up in a better world.  

SP: What are your thoughts and hopes for grassroots organizing in the future?

JS: For a number of reasons, I think there will be a resurgence at the grassroots. First, there has been a shift to the left in the political economy, giving progressive groups more traction to move forward reform agendas in legislative settings. Second, judging by the massive immigration rallies of 2006, Latinos understand how to harness and demonstrate political power, and they will have good reason and opportunity to do so once more. Third, Obama seems committed to expanding broadband access in rural and low-income communities and this has very good implications, since community organizing has been hampered greatly by the digital divide. Finally, the public, especially young people, seems taken by the new emphasis on national service, which has the potential to fertilize the grassroots.

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For volunteer opportunities and more information, contact Candice Sloan, volunteer coordinator, at 217-365-0045 or pantryvol@wesleyui.org.

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