The median household income in Riverside is $99,063, which means that half the residents earn even more than that, but that the other half receives less.
Cheryl Stefanik, who has been a member of Ascension Lutheran Church in Riverside for almost 50 years, recognized that those at the bottom of that lower half are often food insecure, so three years ago she began promoting the idea that her congregation start a ministry to partially meet the need.
In March 2018 they implemented a ministry they call Meals Do Matter, where they make and freeze nutritious meals then distribute them to those in need.
They had a program, but the problem was that they didn’t know who needed the meals.
In the early fall of 2018 they received a list of clients who needed food from a nonprofit called PeopleCare, an organization formed 30 years ago as a ministry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Riverside to, according to PeopleCare’s website, “assist and support the homebound elderly by providing socialization, emotional support and access to service providers.”
PeopleCare is now managed by the Riverside/North Riverside Covenant of Churches.
Mary Coonda is a member of Ascension Lutheran Church and the board president of PeopleCare. She helped connect the dots to the point where now the Meals Do Matter ministry is an unofficial and ad hoc partner of PeopleCare.
“Many people who were on PeopleCare’s list of clients were receiving meals Monday through Friday but not on weekends,” Stefanik said. “Our ministry helped bridge that gap. We started off serving 12 clients. With the COVID pandemic we are up to 20 and Judy Mantel, the executive director of PeopleCare, says we may be adding a few more.”
Rev. Chris Honig, Ascension’s pastor, observed that food for the body was not the only need being meet by Meals Do Matter.
“The program addresses a very basic need — healthy food – for those in the surrounding communities who struggle with food insecurity,” Honig said. “Since many of the recipients also struggle with social isolation, the program also provides important human interaction. These needs have only become greater in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Stefanik said the ministry’s clients aren’t the only beneficiaries.
“We have been doing this for three years and this ministry not only touches the lives of the people who receive the meals, but also the people who cook, put the meals together and deliver them,” Stefanik said. “It is a great way to live out our faith.”
“The program deeply affects the people of Ascension, too,” he said. “I hear countless stories and comments from parishioners who participate in the program about how meaningful this opportunity to serve has been for them.
“Just the other day, one volunteer told me that she ran into a past recipient of meals while making a delivery. In the course of their conversation, he told her that a medical condition was making it hard for him to eat certain foods. So the volunteer went out that same day to pick up and drop off the specific food he requested.”
Honig added that the pandemic has made many feel “helpless” and that the ministry provides a way to break out of that mindset.
“This program provides a tangible way for participants to live out their faith in the world, while also witnessing first-hand the positive impact their service makes in the lives of others,” Honig said.
A ministry like Meals Do Matter requires resources. According to Stefanik the ministry is supported through congregational donations and fundraising dinners, which, unfortunately are not possible at the moment.
In 2020, Ascension received a Lutheran Disaster Relief grant from the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, ELCA, for the ministry.
“Our cooks are currently supplying the food used to make the meals,” Stefanik said.
Stefanik said that, at first she didn’t feel she could lead such a ministry, but doing the work has changed her.
“When I proposed this ministry to the Church Council, I stressed that I could not lead this. I had too much on my plate,” she said. “Well, look at me now. This is where I am being called and I will continue to serve as long as I am able.”