By Bob Uphues
Almost two years ago, Riverside Presbyterian Church opened its Little Food Pantry – a wood cabinet stocked with non-perishable food and personal care items – available at any time for anyone in need.
Now, the church committee responsible for that initiative is expanding that mission and is inviting people not only to take an item of food home with them but to come inside once each month and share a meal with members of the congregation.
On Sunday, June 9, at 5 p.m. Riverside Presbyterian Church, 116 Barrypoint Road, will host its first Community Dinner, which is open to anyone at no cost.
"Whether you hunger for food, good conversation or the opportunity to meet others in the community, please join us," states a flier for the June 9 dinner. "We won't be dressed up – come as you are."
According to Tara Gregus, who is a member of the church's Mission Committee and the person responsible for the Little Food Pantry in 2017, the dinners are part of the committee's focus on food insecurity locally, nationally and internationally.
What the Little Food Pantry initiative taught the congregation was that there was a need for it. Gregus said use of the pantry has exploded since the first months it was open. The pantry is stocked daily and earlier this week, was so heavily used that the cupboard was temporarily bare.
"We're having trouble keeping up," Gregus said.
While it's not completely clear who is using the pantry, church members and Gregus have been able to collect some anecdotal evidence that people are coming to the church from both Riverside and from out of town.
When she is there stocking the shelves and someone walks up to the pantry, Gregus says she tries to be welcoming and strike up a conversation. One recent visitor, she said, was a single mom from Riverside who told her the pantry was "a godsend" to help her supplement her own pantry at home, especially granola bars, which she puts in her son's school lunches.
"That's why we have this," Gregus said.
The pantry has become so popular, Gregus has arranged for the Aldi in Stickney to donate fresh produce otherwise slated for the dumpster to be donated to the pantry. Produce has been available at the pantry since March and the shelves are stocked on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"People show up at 10 a.m. for the produce," Gregus said. "It's something you can't get a lot of times at food pantries."
While people are invited to use the pantry at any time, Gregus said the Mission Committee wanted a way to more personally connect with those in need, which led to the community dinners, which will be held on the second Sunday of each month.
"The point is not to try to get members for the church. It's to nourish those in need," Gregus said. "We thought, 'Why not invite people inside the walls of the church. Let's share a meal.'"
Gregus said she's not quite sure what to expect on June 9 when the doors open for the first community dinner, but they'll accommodate whatever crowd they get.
"I don't know if we'll be cooking for 50 or 150, so that'll be a bit of a challenge and part of the fun," Gregus said.
She also said the committee hopes to provide some sort of activity that people can participate in. On June 9, she said, it's likely to be bingo, but the activities could be seasonal, like pumpkin carving in October or singing Christmas carols in December.
"It'll be some kind of fun activity where people can be together, enjoy each other's company and make people feel welcome," Gregus said.