With the Food for Families Food Drive nearly upon us, we wanted to take time to highlight one of the local pantries that will benefit from the December 5 event. Fueled by a passion for community, Anderson Food Pantry and Melissa Darst, director of Mission Reclaimed, which runs the pantry, share a love for people that is truly contagious. As it grows, Anderson Food Pantry continues to be an integral part of our community, and we are proud to lend them cooperative support. We spoke to Darst to learn more about the pantry’s work.
When and how was the food pantry established? The Anderson Food Pantry initially began in 2013 under the vision of Ray and Martha Biggs and Anderson Baptist Church. They transformed a dilapidated building on the church grounds into what became known as “Five Loaves, Two Fishes.” In 2015, we began serving at the pantry, which averaged about 20 families per month. Six months later, a need arose for a new leader of the pantry, and the church voted to give the pantry to our nonprofit, Mission Reclaimed. What a gift! We had a passion for feeding people, and it is an honor to have been entrusted with the work and to carry on the legacy the Biggses started. We did elect to rebrand the pantry [as] “Anderson Food Pantry” in an effort to help people immediately identify what we are and where to find us.
What is the greatest need you see in the community, and how can people help? There are so many needs within our community, but one of the biggest that impacts our operation is transportation challenges. There are so many people without cars, with car issues, with health issues that keep them homebound, etc. We get calls all the time asking for deliveries, but that is something we have not been able to manage to date. A mobile ministry is one of our long-term dreams! On a bigger picture, the greatest need is simply more community. We once heard someone say, “People need people more than people need things,” and that is the heartbeat of so much of what we do. People come to the Anderson Food Pantry for food, but they also come for community. Our clients are a community; food distribution days may be the only day they get out of their house for the month, and they look forward to seeing their friends and sharing updates on life. They also look forward to the community of our volunteers, especially the young children running around, serving and carrying their bags out to their cars. We know our clients by name, we pray for them, we connect, and we invest in one another. This is exactly why our long-term vision for a new or bigger space includes more square footage to expand programming that will help equip, educate and ultimately help them “reclaim” their lives. We look to create sustainable community impact with every program we roll out. Who says a food pantry can only meet needs of the food-insecure? Our goal is to draw anyone and everyone together, while pointing people up, through the work that we do and the programs we offer. As many people recognize, food has the power to bring people together. And handing out bags of food is just the beginning for us—it’s not the end goal. That bag of food kicks off a beautiful relationship that opens a door into someone’s life. If we are doing our job right, we are being very intentional to recognize needs, meet those needs and watch life change occur.People can help meet these needs by coming out to volunteer and by committing to be part of our FEED365 program, where for $1 a day, you can support the Anderson Food Pantry. To learn more, visit missionreclaimed.com/feed365.
How many families do you assist monthly? Is there more of a need at different points in the year? We serve around 220-plus families per month, which represents over 400 individuals from an eight-county stretch. We will serve anyone from anywhere that shows up in our line. Our distribution is very consistent and has steadily increased each month—by over 1,000 percent in the last two years.
What does giving back to the community mean to you, and how have you seen it affect others? Giving back to the community, loving our neighbor as ourselves and selfless sacrifice are at the root of our family and how Mission Reclaimed was founded. Inspired from 1 John 3:16–18, our tagline is to be “Love in Action.” We have a passion and a purpose for the work that we do, coupled with a passion and love for the Lord, and that is what drives us and feeds us! He gave us this vision, this burden for the cause, and we aim to live, love and serve like he did. We have had wonderful opportunities and various jobs in our lifetime, but when you have the ability to imprint on the lives of others and the perspective to realize it’s not about you, that’s when you experience a fulfillment like no other. George H.W. Bush said it best when he said, “Any definition of a successful life must include serving others.” To see other people catch this spirit is so rewarding and energizing! In 2017, we hosted over 500 volunteers who logged thousands of hours. One piece of feedback that really moved us was when a volunteer described her time at the pantry by saying,“I came here to serve, but it feels like I was served.” Others describe the pantry as a family. We promise you will be moved in great ways if you come out for a visit!
How does the Food for Families Food Drive help the food pantry? Is this something that you look forward to each year? Yes, we absolutely look forward to this drive! It is easily the biggest food drive of the year and helps offset our food costs in a tremendous way. The awareness and support of the FFF Drive generates much interest in the cause and in our pantry, which is another blessing. We truly want to thank Mid-South for all they do to lead this huge undertaking and for all they do to support the Anderson Food Pantry throughout the year.
What items are people encouraged to donate? We welcome donations of any kind! We take food items such as canned soups, fruits, vegetables and meats as well as breakfast items like cereal, oatmeal, muffin mix, pancake mix and more. Staples like flour, sugar and oil are also encouraged. We also greatly appreciate monetary donations. Because we are a partner of the Brazos Valley Food Bank, we can purchase food for an average of 10 cents per pound, which is a significant savings compared to shopping your local store. That means we can turn $10 into $100, and $100 into $1,000! Through their partnership, we are also able to extend meat, eggs, cheese, assorted frozen goods and fresh produce to our clients. Additionally, we appreciate donations of gently used clothing or household items from smoke-free homes to put in our Thread Shed, which is located next door to the pantry and is an area our clients can shop for free to supplement other needs within their homes.
Explain how individuals can get involved and volunteer with the food pantry. We invite individuals of any age. You will often see people ranging from 2–80-plus, and we believe this is one thing that makes our pantry special and different. It can be a liability to have young children present, but we are a family-run nonprofit, and our pantry is an extension of our home. We home-school our three children, so you will see our kids (ages 7–11) helping run the show. We strongly believe in giving children the opportunity to serve on the front line. They want a job and they want to give! And they can work hard, but it has to be modeled and nurtured. We are thankful for a place to invite children in to do just this, and it is a blessing to serve as a family unit and also host organizations, businesses and other special groups. If you are interested in volunteering, please email us at [email protected].
What is your greatest experience with the food pantry or a memory that stands out to you? In 2016, we decided to host our first hot meal event for clients, which was a chicken spaghetti dinner. From that event, and from simply gathering around a table to share a meal, we were able to connect on a deeper level with a man named Paul. He was usually the first one in line every time our doors were open, but we had never heard his story. Turns out Paul had decided to go to college (at the age of 60) and because he was on a Veterans Affairs loan, he was not allowed to hold down a job. He had worked his entire life but wanted to get a college degree to set an example for his grandkids. He was in line at our pantry to help make ends meet while he was in school. During dinner, we had the chance to invite Paul to a Sunday school class we were teaching at the time. He showed up, and he kept coming week after week. Then Paul joined the church! Months later, Paul graduated from college, and we held a special ceremony for him where he was able to walk the stage at our church, toss his cap and enjoy a reception. Since that meal, Paul has also faithfully served each month of the last two years every time the food pantry is open. He is the face that joyfully greets each client and checks them in. If that were not enough, Paul is now teaching the Sunday school class that he first visited, and he leads a weekly Bible study at a senior housing center that serves some of our clients. Paul also volunteers with the high school youth group. That, my friends, is a life reclaimed!