LEFT: Tom Pemberton picks up donated food for CROS Ministries. Photos provided
By Janis Fontaine
The USDA calls it “food insecurity.” What it means is going hungry. For some, it means starving.
Hunger may be the No. 1 social issue Palm Beach County faces. Here in the richest agricultural area east of the Mississippi River, you’ll find food deserts — areas where access to fresh, healthy food like fruits and vegetables is limited. If produce is available, it’s too expensive.
While politicians and pundits discuss big-picture solutions to end hunger in our county, CROS Ministries and its team of volunteers have been working for 37 years to feed people until a long-term solution can be found. The Lake Worth-based organization — CROS stands for Christians Reaching Out to Society — is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and has one clear mission: To serve the hungry in Palm Beach and Martin counties.
They do it through seven community food pantries (in Delray Beach, Lake Worth, Riviera Beach, West Palm Beach, Jupiter, Belle Glade and Indiantown): The Caring Kitchen (a hot meal and social services program); summer camp programs that feed kids; an after-school snack program; a weekend food program for children (Nutrition in a Knapsack); and gleaning, a food recovery program.
Of course CROS Ministries isn’t the only game in town. The problem is too big for any one person or agency to solve. Dozens of agencies in Palm Beach County are working with CROS to feed the hungry. The Palm Beach County Food Bank is a leader county-wide, while groups like the Community Caring Center in Boynton Beach and Boca Helping Hands are fighting hunger in their own backyards. These groups are supported by local churches and corporate sponsors provide financial support and host food drives, whatever they can do.
And still there are hungry kids.
The idea of going to bed hungry is so abhorrent to us as a society, parents used to use it as a punishment: “If you do or don’t (insert infraction), you’re going to bed without supper!” they’d say. So consider this: More than 60,000 children in Palm Beach County are being punished every night. Hunger doesn’t just afflict the homeless man. It affects kids, mothers, seniors, the disabled, and the poor.
“These are the faces of the hungry that people don’t see,” executive director Ruth Mageria said. And it doesn’t end at the city limits. As CROS Ministries’ website says, hunger has no boundaries.
Juanita Goode, the director of engagement, oversees the volunteer staff who are critical to the success of the programs. She got involved with CROS when she realized there was a clear connection between hunger and illiteracy — and to the increased likelihood of a prison sentence.
“Children aren’t going to learn if they’re hungry,” Goode said. “They’ll have a lifetime of medical problems because elementary school years are a critical nutritional time.” It’s a cycle: Illiteracy destroys any hope of a good-paying job, leading to more underemployed parents with more hungry kids.
One CROS program that needs volunteers is the Nutrition in a Knapsack program that sends 150 elementary schoolers home on Friday afternoons with meals for the weekend.
“Otherwise the kids would have chips and cookies for dinner, if that,” Goode said.
Some might have nothing of substance to eat from their free Friday lunch until they come back to school on Monday and get free breakfast.
CROS needs help getting the weekend food packs from its facility to the school for distribution. The shift is a little over an hour, and you need a car or SUV. Goode said she’d love a long commitment, but she’ll take any help she can get. “One Friday a month would help.”
Many of CROS’ stumbling blocks are logistical: Getting donated or gleaned food into the hands of the people who need it.
“In Delray at the Caring Kitchen, we need help picking up food donations and delivering meals to the homebound. It’s a one-day-a-week commitment,” Goode said. “We also need help onsite preparing the meals, and working in the clothing boutique.”
Mageria says the demographic CROS ministries serves is changing.
“Two things I can tell you: Most of the people now, I cannot tell them to go get a job, because many of them have two jobs already. They may have had to choose between putting gas in the car so they can get to work or buying food.
“Two: Forty percent of the hungry people are children. The other growing age group is the elderly. Many of them worked all their lives but now the money is just not enough.”
Some seniors have to choose between food and medication.
Now Mageria sees more single mothers with bachelor’s degrees. “They don’t want to be here. They don’t want to admit they need help, but they do whatever it takes to see that their child is fed.”
Volunteers are needed
Volunteers are needed to pick produce at harvest time. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 233-9009, Ext. 107.
The Caring Kitchen in Delray Beach needs a traffic director and drivers who can deliver meals to shut-ins. The program also needs office volunteers, weekday van drivers and people to prepare and serve food. Shifts vary. Contact email@example.com or 308-7980.
Nutrition in a Knapsack needs a food manager to set and meet deliveries and keep paperwork. It also needs help with food bag deliveries on Fridays for about an hour. You need a four-door car or an SUV. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 233-9009, Ext. 105.
The Lake Worth office needs a volunteer to do computer work in MS Word and Excel and other special projects. Any day, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact email@example.com or 233-9009, Ext. 103.
The Community Back to School Bash needs donations of school supplies and volunteers on Aug. 6-7 to unload supplies and set up tables for the Bash; on Aug. 8 volunteers are needed to hand out school supplies and to be shopping buddies. There are four sites: Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Village Academy in Delray Beach, and West Tech in Belle Glade. Info: www.communitybacktoschoolbash.org.
Other ways to fight hunger
Don’t have much time? Mageria says you don’t need to do some huge, amazing thing to contribute. Like Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Here are five small things you can do to fight hunger:
• Host a food drive. Best foods: peanut butter, canned tuna, chicken or salmon, oatmeal, soup, 100 percent juice in boxes, pasta and spaghetti sauce. Stay away from perishables or foods that need milk to be prepared, such as macaroni and cheese.
• Walk in the 21st annual End Hunger Walk at 3 p.m. Oct. 11 at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, West Palm Beach. Register online at crosministries.org or in person on walk day.
• Help Brown Bag It at 9 a.m. Saturdays at Cason United Methodist Church, located at 342 N. Swinton Ave. in Delray Beach. Prepare brown bag weekend meals for the homeless.
• Serve the hungry, literally. Volunteers are needed to serve dinner from 5 to 5:30 nightly at The Caring Kitchen. Lunch and breakfast shifts are also available.
• Double your money. The Summer Match Appeal is in full swing. Until Oct. 1, the Quantum Foundation will match your donation dollar for dollar, up to a total of $30,000. Contact Gibbie at 233-9009, Ext. 106, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at email@example.com.