Since 2014, East Mesa Baptist Church in Las Cruses, New Mexico has opened its doors every Thursday at 9 a.m. to area residents in need of food or other assistance.
Then the pandemic hit.
Instead of 8 to 12 families seeking food each week, 40 to 60 families became the norm. One day, 80 families came through the line. With such an increase in need and a surplus of food donations coming in from various sources, the church fellowship hall and most of the classrooms filled up with pallets of food.
Needing more space
Plans are underway to build a separate building to house the food pantry ministry now that it has outgrown the small closet that used to contain it.
“It has grown from where volunteers used to work Thursday mornings and maybe Tuesday mornings, to probably four to five days a week,” said Scott Baumberger, who along with his wife, Peggy, help run the ministry.
Bernice Sanchez, the church’s food pantry ministry leader, said, “The pandemic was very stressful. Many people needed food. Many people lost their jobs. They came from out of town to live with their parents because they lost their jobs where they lived. We had to adjust.
“Instead of an indoor pantry,” she noted, “it became an outdoor drive-in with masks and sanitizer.”
So many vehicles started coming that traffic cones and signs guided families coming in to avoid blocking the road. Recipients show their ID to indicate they live in the East Mesa area. Church volunteers keep a spreadsheet to record how often each family comes.
Before the pandemic, area residents could only request assistance once a month. However, families can go twice a month with the increased need and abundant food donations. In addition to providing food, the ministry also distributes tracts, Bibles and news about other ministry services. “Iglesia Bautista Buenas Nuevas next door to East Mesa, is a Spanish church, our sister church. They give us Bible tracts or information on women’s ministries in Spanish because 70% of the people who come are Spanish-speaking people,” Sanchez said.
Stepping up to help
When more volunteers were needed to manage the food pickups, storage and distribution, many stepped up to help.
“We are so blessed in this church with people who are willing and capable. There are not enough words of affirmation and acclamation for the many faithful volunteers we have. They are just awesome,” said James Pratt, pastor of East Mesa.
When asked why they volunteered, several shared what compelled them to help.
“There are many families in this area that need extra help. Those that are very appreciative make it worthwhile for those that are not. And when you have little kids come who have not eaten, they want to eat the apple or the fruit that is right there, right now,” said Peggy Baumberger.
Volunteer Lynette Cowan noted, “I am volunteering because I feel it is what the Lord would have me do. I enjoy doing it — to see people get food that they need. God has been so good at supplying abundantly.”
Liz Guffey, another volunteer, declared, “What else can an 87-year-old lady do except work for the Lord? I am in good health, so I feel real honored to help. It is a wonderful program. I cannot believe what we usually give out and how many people we help.”
The church collects a benevolence offering once a month among church members to fund the pantry ministry and offer utility bill assistance. The pantry’s food comes from individual donations, donations through Casa de Peregrinos, a local food distribution center, or is purchased from the Roadrunner Food Bank of New Mexico.
The Las Cruces Gospel Rescue Mission, which the church supports through its monthly budget, also donates its excess food to the ministry. During the pandemic in 2020, the church obtained several grants, including one through the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico. East Mesa Baptist Church is one of nine churches with the Baptist Convention of New Mexico that weekly receives fresh produce, dairy and meat products through the USDA’s $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Local grocery stores also call EMBC directly when food donations are available for pick up.
“If we get an overabundance of produce that will spoil, we open the pantry and put a ‘free food’ sign out on the road,” Peggy Baumberger said. “We make up boxes of a variety of items. Sometimes we have extra meat, bread, produce and sweets. You would be surprised how many cars come in. We do not check licenses on that day because it is extra food, and it is going to go to waste if we do not give it out.”
The church hopes to start building the new facility soon.
Peggy Baumberger said, “It’s grown from needing a closet to needing a building. The church member’s generosity in donations created a need to build storage for donations. Instead of being in five different areas where we have to send runners to get the food, it will be in one building. We are waiting on permits from the county to move forward.”
Until recently, the church shared abundant food with 11 other emergency food programs in the Lower Rio Grande area. Over the past few weeks, the church has seen a drop in food donations. It could be related to some resources that have helped Afghan refugees, or pandemic-related programs, have ceased.
“Hopefully, we have enough food stockpiled to carry us for a while,” said Scott Baumberger. “We cut back on what we are giving out at the pantry and what we give to the other food pantries. Even the number of people coming for food dropped back a bit.
“Depending on how our food supplies holds out, we might need to go back to allowing people to come only once a month … But, we are making it work for now.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was written by Sandy Montoya and was originally published by the Baptist New Mexican, newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico.