Grace Marable, Missions Coordinator at Bethel Presbyterian Church and Coalition Against Hunger Board Member, became involved in the anti-hunger movement in 2011 when she was handed the Bethel Presbyterian food program. Read below to find out what she and Bethel Presbyterian Church are doing to fight food insecurity in their North Philadelphia community.
How long have you been involved in anti-hunger work and how did you get started?
I started in 2011 when the pastor of the time had retired. He left me with the assignment to run the food program. I hadn’t done anything with the food program before, and when I started, it wasn’t functional. The people who had previously run the program were not doing anything. I started all over from the bottom and built it up. It was tough but I took my time, learned how to do different things, and built up the program.
Can you give us some background on the food program at Bethel Presbyterian Church?
During the height of Covid, we were open every week. We never closed. What we did and what we are still doing is we distribute the food outside. Before Covid, we used to have lines and people would come inside and pickup their bags of food, but we still have everything outside. Even in the winter time, we were outside.
Right now we are pretty busy. Every Thursday we give out bags of food. We are doing 100-110 a week, plus we make sandwiches for the people who are picking up food. They are hungry, and they are looking for a sandwich or something to eat right then. We also usually have fresh produce that we get from Philabundance, and everyone is really excited about the fresh produce.
After I first started, I realized that some of the people who come to get food bags don’t have anywhere to cook. So we needed to cater to these people, especially since it’s a big population. I have certain foods for people who are unable to cook. We have lots of cans that are easy to open, canned meats, peanut butter, jelly, and we buy 100 loaves of bread each week to give them along with their food bags.
Every other Saturday we do a meal and that meal is a cooked meal. It’s focused towards the seniors and the homeless people in the community, so they can have a nutritional meal. We are still serving it at the door. They come to the door and pick it up every other Saturday.
What are some of the other services your food program offers?
We just gave out 100 book bags. During the summer we have books out for kids to come by and read. We also have clothing, and we have a senior program that meets once a month. This month will be our first month back with the senior program. We have senior church members, community members, and friends come in. We have lunch, and we have resources for them and let them get together and be a community.
And then the last thing we are working on, by being outside closer to the people, we see the stress and the mental health needs. So we worked with Temple. Temple did a mental health survey with community members. They interviewed about 60 different people, gave them a stipend, and now they are working on analyzing that. We also have DBHIS (Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services) come to help us every other week. They set up outside and meet the community, have handouts available, talk to them, and try to give them directions and things they might need.
So that’s all we are doing. It’s a lot, but it’s amazing work. It’s rewarding work. It makes you feel good to be able to help people.
In a recent survey you completed for the Coalition Against Hunger, you mentioned that your food program has seen more people coming to your food pantry in the past year. Why do you think this is, and has your program had to make any changes to meet this need?
Yes, definitely. The pricing of the food is so high that people can’t afford the food. A lot of people are losing food stamps and some people are unable to work. If you have the same amount of money to buy food as you had 2-3 years ago, it’s not working now because the prices are so high and then a lot of the items are not available. We see so many people saying, “thank you, thank you.” We had a man here who was about 50 years old. He was almost crying. He said “me and my wife needed this food so bad.”
What advice do you have for other Hunger Fighters or other people who want to make an impact in the work to end hunger?
The first thing is that you have to treat people like you want to be treated. Just because somebody looks rough, don’t abuse them. From my spiritual outlook, I think about how I don’t know who I’m talking to when I see a person with a mask on. I really don’t know who I’m talking to. They might be Jesus, so I want to treat them right. Treat people right, be fair with them, and help them as much as you can. Don’t be holding back. Help them. We get the food. It’s there to help people, so give it out. Help them out.
We had a girl come by last week, and she was looking for school clothes for her kids the next day. She had gone to a few other churches and no one could help her. When she came, we were busy setting up so I told her to come back later. She came back. We gave her book bags for the kids and got them supplies. She had 4 kids. We took care of her. She’s in our community. She needs help. We are here.
And you have to be patient with people. People in the community and on the streets have been through all sorts of things. They might not be as friendly all the time, but they are in need. And for some of them, it’s hard to ask. They don’t want to ask, but now they are being forced to to survive. So you need to be a little patient with them.
September is Hunger Action Month, A month dedicated to taking action and raising awareness of the hunger crisis. Are there ways that people can take action and support your food program?
They can come and volunteer. They can donate money to the church for the food program. If people have an abundance of stuff, they can donate stuff towards the program. We basically don’t give out pork, and the reason for that is because most of the people we serve have high blood pressure and diabetes. So we do not give out pork, but there are always new need. Like today, I had to go and buy bread this morning to make egg salad sandwiches. There’s always a need.