Keep Feeding People During the Pandemic

Now is the time to redesign food ministries to serve our neighbors.
by Faith+Lead | May 12, 2020

By Elizabeth Mae Magill

Now is a time of staying home, staying safe. But for churches, part of our work is caring for our community. Our purpose is wrapped up in those we serve. I just wrote the book on relational food ministries (“Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing a Relational Food Ministry”), so I know social distancing is painful. I am learning a great deal as I lead workshops on adapting food ministries during the pandemic. Yet for me, for the churches I serve, our purpose is still finding ways to feed people who are hungry. We cannot stop now as we see the huge increases in the number of people who are hungry, unemployed and afraid. 

I’ve asked churches how they have adapted to keep feeding people during the pandemic. First, they identify who they are serving. People who are food insecure and people who don’t have homes have different needs. 

Food Pantries

For food programs serving the working poor, people with disabilities, the elderly, and others who have housing, the goal is to get food to people’s homes. Pantries are a good resource for this. You can convert your meal to take out or hand out the ingredients as pantry items.

Here are some points to help food pantries.

1) If you make space for users to shop, you will need to limit the number of people shopping at one time. Some pantries have created a shopping list so users can circle the items they want and volunteers shop for them. Others have switched to providing pre-packed bags of groceries.

2) Move your pantry to make it easier for quick entry and exit. Many churches have moved a table to the front door so that shoppers do not come inside at all. Others have opened new pathways so that people come in one door and out another, allowing for more physical distancing. Several churches have moved into the parking lot for distribution. Others are delivering food to open trunks; shoppers do not have to get out of the car.

3) Increase the time your pantry is open. This allows for more shoppers, but also spreads people out. My church switched from 2 hours once a month to every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for one hour a day. We serve more people than before the pandemic, but have fewer at each shift. Others open for longer hours. Consider assigning people a time to come based on their names or street address.

4) Think about food delivery. One church I talked to has worked with a senior center to deliver meals directly to some people homes. This reduces the risk for those who need the food, and limits contact for the drivers as well.

Prepared Meals 

In communities where our neighbors don’t have homes, meals are a mainstay. For this, it’s important that the volunteers are people comfortable with the risks of working with people who may not be good at physical distancing and certainly are not sheltering in place.

Here are some guidelines to consider.

1) While providing to-go meals is an option, consider that with libraries, stores, and church buildings closed, access to a bathroom and a place to sit are important ministries. Look at your space to determine if you can spread people out. Some ministries have expanded into their sanctuary in addition to the social hall since the building is not used for worship. 

2) Use chairs and tables to set boundaries in your space. One church I talked to requires each eater to use three chairs—they sit in the middle between empty chairs. Or put two people at each table, one on each end. Small groups that travel together can be allowed one table with no other groups or individuals joining them. Use serving tables to provide distancing between servers and eaters.

3) As each group of eaters leaves, sanitize the table and chairs with a bleach solution before the next shift arrives. Wash down doorknobs, faucets, and bathroom stall doors regularly. 

4) Practice good physical distancing and provide face masks. Of course, people can’t wear them while they eat, but they can be required while waiting.

5) Get rid of the buffet line. Volunteers wearing face masks can deliver meals to people’s seats, or you can use a line with 6 foot distancing marked off to distribute prepared plates or lunch bags.

Volunteer Concerns

While it is important for the church as a whole to be engaged in outreach, we also want to be wise about which volunteers do what. We encourage people who can walk the line between “everything is fine” and “nothing is safe” to participate as face-to-face (while physically distant) volunteers. 

What are some things to think about for volunteers?

1) People who have lower risk factors, people who are comfortable in masks and gloves, people who are able to ask others to maintain safe distances, these are the people who are most helpful in reaching out to the community. 

2) To increase safety while cooking, sandwich making, and cleaning up, food preparation volunteers or staff should keep separate from others who distribute the food. The clean-up crew should not enter the kitchen until the cooks are gone.

3) Use family units for some tasks so that volunteers are not interacting with people outside of their household.

4) Volunteers at significant risk are encouraged to help with phone calls or driving, to work alone, or to do tasks that can be done when the program is closed. 

5) No one who is coughing, sneezing, or has a fever should be volunteering (which has always been true).

Nothing is risk free. We all must redesign our food ministries for these new circumstances, and keep people as safe as possible, but we cannot end all risks. As Christians it is Jesus calling us to feed those who are hungry. Now is the time to respond to that call. 

Elizabeth Mae Magill is a Congregationalist pastor in Massachusetts. Her book, “Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing Relational Food Ministries” came out in March 2020. Magill’s website is

Photo by Wendy Wei

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