The Bucket Brigade didn’t exist in late February. March 25th was their first delivery.


“We had to invent the Bucket Brigade overnight in a global pandemic,” said Emily McKown, Executive Director of the Channing-Murray Foundation. “There was a lot of what felt like chaos in the beginning, but in terms of getting food to people it has been pretty smooth. Putting all of the people and volunteers in the right place was a feat. Now we have a steady group of volunteers. We have food. We have a system.” The Bucket Brigade has delivered food to 300 households and served over 1,000 meals as of May 12th.

Whether new or operating in a new way, these three programs — the Bucket Brigade, C-U Better Together, and Jubilee Café — are working to address food insecurity in C-U.

Jubilee Café

Johnell Bentz has been with Jubilee Café at Community United Church of Christ, a 100% volunteer run organization, since it began operations in October 2017. Bentz said that the biggest shift is that a lot of families bring their kids when they pick up food. That’s new.

Jubilee Cafe adjusted their model overnight. Previously, they had table service and a limited menu. People ordered meals and servers brought food out to them while they chatted with friends or met new friends at a communal table. While Jubilee Cafe still serves on Monday nights, the meals are now served in to-go containers. Instead of meeting new people or old friends, now people check-in with Reverend Leah Robberts-Mosser (Lead Pastor at Community UCC) or the UCC Campus Ministry Liaison who checks in with university students who receive food. Both are wearing masks and gloves. In addition to a shift in how they serve food, the numbers of meals served has also changed. Jubilee Cafe regularly serves around 126 meals on Monday nights now. Pre-COVID-19, they thought that 100 meals served was an unusually busy evening.

C-U Better Together

The Community Foundation of East Central Illinois (CFECI) and over 25 organizations are collaborating on C-U Better Together to address the need of families. The schools committed to feeding students in the school districts of Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana District 116 who get free meals. The organizations working on C-U Better Together asked the questions: are the families of those kids being fed? The schools are feeding the students breakfast and lunch but what about dinner? What about kids in those families who are younger and not in school yet?

Joan Dixon, President and CEO of CFECI, highlighted the importance of collaboration and utilizing organizations that already had expertise in feeding people. Jeff Scott, CEO of Stephens Family YMCA approached Dixon and Sue Grey, President and CEO of United Way of Champaign County to begin discussions about ways to help. They knew that Stone Creek Church and the Vineyard Church of Central Illinois already had active food pantries and CFECI had already established the Champaign County COVID-19 Relief Fund. Additionally, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District is delivering some groceries via buses to areas where people don’t have transportation or don’t want to leave their areas. Others can come to the churches to pick up groceries.

The Bucket Brigade

For McKown, collaborating with Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant was an obvious decision. The idea of the Bucket Brigade began when the Cunningham Township approached Channing-Murray about people in need. McKown immediately reached out to Red Herring manager Holly Curia and Kitchen Manager Lauren Kolb because they are chefs, feminists, and community organizers. Originally, when the Bucket Brigade started, it served groceries in a bucket because that was what was available. Now they deliver groceries in a bag and serve families in both Champaign and Urbana.

Both Jubilee Café and Channing Murray prepare fresh meals in addition to groceries. Bentz and McKown mentioned that Sola Gratia Farm is an important partner. It’s these collaborations and the ability of the organizational leaders to identify different talents and capacities that has enabled these programs to flourish during a time of crisis.

A woman in a black shirt and pants wearing a black mask stands in front of a counter filled with food warmers. Photo provided by Jubilee Cafe.Photo provided by Jubilee Café.

All three organizations saw that the C-U community was ready to step up and help. At a time when cities like New York are seeing a shortage of volunteers, C-U has been able to keep up with the demand.

While some people can safely volunteer, others cannot due to being in a vulnerable population such as the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions. All three organizations are encouraging those volunteers to stay home.

Dixon said, “People should take great pride in the fact that this community has come together. As a community, we are looking out for people who might be overlooked. We might have overlooked the families, but we didn’t. We might have overlooked the immigrants or undocumented, but we aren’t. We should be very proud of that.”

McKown told the story of volunteer Carol Inskeep, who volunteered with the Bucket Brigade starting in the third week of operations. After making a food delivery, Inskeep received this message from the recipient: “Thank you so much and God bless you all. I will never forget what Township did for me when I was at my lowest moment. Hopefully when I get stronger, I can help someone like you have for me.”

Looking to the future

As for C-U Better Together, Dixon stated that it is funded through mid-July. Soon, they plan to reassess the needs of students returning to school and adjust their response.

Jubilee Café is always open year-round. They have a good system in place to continue serving meals and groceries to go. There are two big challenges they will continue to address: eco-friendly to-go containers and giving regular volunteers a break every now and then. Bentz stated: “It’s important to realize that people who go eat a free meal in town are just like you and I. They love their families. Sometimes they get caught in circumstances when they need more help.” Bentz also suggested that people who want to help and have the financial means should choose an organization they like and donate money.

The Bucket Brigade model has sparked creativity for McKown and others to envision new programs. Channing-Murray is beginning a collaboration with Sola Gratia Farm called Solidarity Gardens that will aim to provide tools and resources for people to grow their own food as well as for established gardeners to share surplus. Channing-Murray’s role in the program will be to help with logistics and deliver fresh food to people who don’t have access. McKown noted that this is also a way to forge community in a time of social distancing. People can be a part of an organization like Solidarity Gardens and that can become a part of their personal identity. It’s a new way to be a part of something greater during a time when connecting to others has become more complicated, and for many, impossible.

As for the Bucket Brigade, McKown said, “This is just the beginning of mutual aid at Channing Murray Foundation. I see this leaning into our social justice mission now more than ever before. While we have our roots in Unitarian Universalism and that spirituality, more and more, the young people in our community and those attached to the university, are interested in a spirituality that is about meeting basic needs and addressing inequality. We have to make sure that people are fed and that is going to be a big agenda for Channing Murray in the coming years.”

For more information about Channing Murray including ways to give or volunteer, visit the Facebook page.

For more information about Jubilee Cafe including ways to give or volunteer, visit the Facebook page.

For more information about Community Foundation of East Central Illinois including ways to give to C-U Better Together and other initiatives, visit Facebook, the website, or the United Way of Champaign County website.

Top photo provided by Channing Murray Foundation.