When John Román, pastor of Pueblo Nuevo Community Church in El Paso, Texas, started a food pantry in 2011 for families in need, he realized something was lacking.
The food pantry only offered canned vegetables. Today beneficiaries of the pantry receive freshly grown vegetables. But he wondered how a small church of about 60 members could grow and maintain a garden that would feed families who were living below the poverty line.
Students enrolled in the church’s empowerment classes — English-as-a-Second-Language, nutrition and citizenship courses, among others — at the church tend it and receive food they helped raise. Volunteers water the plants three to four times a week.
The church tried several varieties of vegetables to find those that adapted best to the hot West Texas climate. Squash and chilis grew well; tomatoes did not.
Still there is not enough produce to supply the food pantry completely. Pueblo Nuevo is continuing to look for a partner agency or an organization that will help the church plant and maintain the plot.
Located southeast of El Paso in Clint, the food pantry serves residents who are food insecure — individuals and families who at some point during a month may not know where their next meal is coming from.
Pandemic presented challenges
Like many other organizations, the food pantry shut down for a month when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. However, the need was so great it was reopened and adapted to a drive-through a month later.
“This has made it more of a challenge for us to communicate and connect with our participants, who we hope to invite to the church’s worship and discipleship ministries,” Román said.
Nuevo Community Church started the food pantry in response to an increase in migration that occurred due to an upswing in people fleeing violence across the border in the Juarez area. The new arrivals needed help. At the same time the church also responded to the needs of people in the vicinity of the church, including the elderly and families with children.
Cars line up the third Wednesday of each month as church members distribute boxes filled with dried beans, rice, cereal, canned vegetables and other supplies. Beneficiaries of the ministry typically receive enough to feed a family for one week.
The food pantry is different from other programs that are not faith-based, because the church sees food as a tool to tell people about Jesus and share his love.
“We are genuinely trying to obey the Great Commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Our church tries to share love with our neighbors in practical ways,” Román said.
“Volunteers are always needed,” he added. The pantry depends on servant leaders who pick up food, process it, pack it and distribute it to registered participants. Some months the church wonders if it will have at least the six workers required to run the pantry, but God always provides enough laborers, Román noted.
Food from God’s hand
The cost of the food pantry runs about $300 per month. The Texas Baptist Hunger Offering provides about half of that cost. The El Paso food pantry is one of 134 ministries in 30 counties and 37 Texas communities the offering helps support. The church and other organizations contribute the rest.
The church also partners with Iglesia Bautista Lirio de los Valles, El Paso Baptist Association and the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank.
Having a drive-through food pickup offers challenges not known before the pandemic. However, the food pantry team and other church members are asked to pray for the people served.
The church wants those who come for food to realize the food is from God’s hand. It’s not from the grocery store or organizations that donate food. It’s from God, they insist.
Ministry makes a difference
Román recalled an example of how the church’s ministry to people in need has made a difference.
“A man with mental health challenges came to our pantry. He lived in sub-standard housing with no air-conditioning or refrigerator and only had a microwave to cook. So, special care had to be taken in the types of food he could receive,” Román said.
“We realized that he needed more than help with food and proceeded to help him in other ways, such as furniture donations, travel to medical appointments, laundry and shopping.”
The man spent most days walking up and down the country road in front of the church, the pastor noted.
“So, he would stop by often to visit. This gave us the opportunity to share the gospel with him,” the pastor said. “Sadly, he passed away recently after being hit by a truck when he was out on one of his walks. We count it a privilege to have known him and to have shared the love of Christ with him through word and deed.”
Román said the ministry also has changed his life.
“It has made me more aware of under-resourced individuals in the vicinity of the church. We may not have met some of them if it hadn’t been for this ministry of the food pantry,” he said.