This past week, our non-profit submitted a proposal for funding to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Our proposal requested funding to support the purchase and renovation of a building to house a program we hope will help reduce food insecurity among Flint residents. We call this new program Community Kitchen because kitchens are often the center of homes fortunate enough to have family meals together.
We know that receiving funding from such a highly competitive process is a long shot. But, we also know that we need to do whatever we can to help Flint families gain access to healthy food alternatives. And we believe we have a way to accomplish this, but why do we think this effort is essential, and why us?
Here is what we know.
Food security requires two things: availability and access. And 1 out of 3 Michigan households with children are experiencing hunger. Unfortunately, economics usually determines availability and access, and Flint has the highest poverty rate among Michigan cities, with over 65,000 people.
Access includes know-how, capacity, time, economics, and motivation. For example, without a functioning kitchen that includes basic items like a stovetop or microwave and accessories, a family is limited in their access to healthier food due to insufficient capacity. In addition, even if someone picks up fresh produce from our help center or soup kitchen, if they don’t know how to prepare a meal, the ingredients offer insufficient help.
We know that the social determinants resulting in food insecurity are directly linked to poor health outcomes. And Genesee County ranks 80th in health outcomes among the 83 counties in Michigan. One reason is that Flint and Genesee County’s food insecurity rate is higher than state and national averages. For example, 45% of young children are in households eligible for public food assistance, and the pandemic further increased the need for food assistance.
While public food assistance, pantries, and mass food giveaways help reduce economic barriers, parents who work full-time have limited time to plan, acquire ingredients, and prepare healthy meals. This is particularly true if a lot of their time is spent in long lines at food giveaways.
Abating the adverse effects of lead
According to an article written by Elaine Waxman and Megan Thompson and published by the Urban Institute, without proper nutrition, children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning. Unfortunately, an increasing number of children in Flint live in food-insecure households. This means that these families face significant obstacles in obtaining food to protect their children and help them stay healthy.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 1.3 Million people living in Michigan faced food insecurity. By 2021 this number increased by 600 Thousand, bringing the number close to the 2 Million mark. That’s almost 6 Million meals each day where availability, access, economic, and other barriers get in the way of families receiving the nutrition necessary for good health.
The number of children living in food-insecure homes increased by over 60% during the pandemic. This is even worse news for Flint children, in particular, who may already be struggling with the adverse effects caused by the presence of lead in their skeletal tissue.
What would Jesus do?
It’s no wonder that food comes up in scripture so often. And it’s not surprising that potlucks are a familiar ritual found in every culture and religion. Nutrition is necessary for life.
Jesus and His followers spent a lot of time on the road. And since Jesus often drew large crowds in remote areas, suppertime sometimes came with logistical problems. Hospitality in any culture calls for setting another place at the table for company. Still, even full cupboards run out at some point. Large crowds and limited cupboards create logistical challenges at suppertime.
We find a story in the gospel of Luke about just such a time.
Jesus and His followers host a revival in a remote area with thousands attending. It’s been a great experience. Folks are getting healed, saved, and inspired. The worship band was dope, the sermons moving, and the crowds couldn’t get enough.
But it’s getting late, and as usual, Jesus didn’t plan ahead and never worried about things like meals. Fortunately, some members of His posse were worriers and made sure that Jesus knew that trouble was brewing before it got out of hand. And this time, the whole gang could see a storm coming.
According to Luke, His entire inner circle came to Jesus and said, “Send the crowds away to the nearby villages and farms, so they can find food and lodging for the night. There is nothing to eat here in this remote place” (Luke 9:12 NLT).
Picture yourself as one of the disciples that day. What are you expecting Jesus to do? The problem of feeding such a large group is easily imagined. I’ve helped prepare and serve meals to a few hundred people before. And I’ve seen videos revealing an inside look at a commercial kitchen preparing meals for larger crowds. There’s always a lot of commotion and yelling with large quantities of ingredients everywhere.
But this wasn’t the scenario. There was no commercial kitchen and little or no ingredients. And I’m sure that the disciples were genuinely concerned. Jesus likely noticed them talking among themselves through the corner of His eye while He was talking. Moreover, He probably saw their anxiety grow as the sun moved closer to the western horizon.
So at the break, they decided that this was too important for one or two of them to confront Jesus with the apparent problem. They all went to Him with their solution anticipating that Jesus would agree that it was time to send the crowds on their way.
But instead, we read in verse 13 that Jesus said, “You feed them.”
Can you imagine how well that went over? Unfortunately, Luke leaves out details of the exchange between Jesus and His followers. Had this happened enough times in the past that His followers knew the routine? Likely not. Were they accustomed to Jesus being unreasonable about His expectations of them? Perhaps.
“But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Or are you expecting us to go and buy enough food for this whole crowd?”
I’m guessing that the disciples knew the answer. I don’t mean the ultimate solution. Only the answer to the question they asked. Jesus was aware that they didn’t have enough money to purchase that much food. And by the time they returned with the ingredients, there wouldn’t be enough time to prepare a meal. The disciples, like the crowds, were food insecure with neither access nor availability.
There is nothing to eat here in this remote place. But Jesus said, “You feed them.”
I imagine Jesus seeing the worried expressions on the faces of His friends. An expression that He’s seen a lot, particularly from you and me. Fortunately, Jesus sees a teaching opportunity. Not just for His disciples, but for the gathered crowd and us.
You feed them!
“You feed them” is a calling heard by chefs, cooks, parents, hospitality workers, and more. More of us have responded to this call than haven’t — if only for a one-time occasion. Food is part of daily life except when other circumstances get in the way. For some, fasting keeps us from the supper table. For others, availability creates a barrier that keeps them from eating. Nevertheless, food is essential for life.
There are approximately 95,000 persons living in the City of Flint. If each person eats three meals a day, this will total 21 meals each week and just under 1,100 meals in a year. Across the city, somewhere around 285 Thousand meals are eaten daily. This means that, on average, we collectively consume almost one million meals each week as a city.
You feed them is so pervasive in life that it takes a lot of people to respond. And this includes you and me.
Remember that God warns us through the Prophet Isaiah not to settle for just going through the motions when responding to God’s call to tangibly love our neighbor. Instead, we’re asked to share our food with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless. And to provide clothes for those who need them (Isaiah 58:7).
As the demands on our time and resources increase, it can feel like something has to give. Even the more faithful recognize that the cupboard empties. But Jesus sees beyond our doubt and invites us to trust that God’s provisions are more than enough. And this is hard when we don’t know where the time and resources are coming from.
But the resources show up in time and in abundance repeatedly. God is as predictable as our worried expressions.
I trust that this answers the questions I started with: Why is this important? Why us?
I believe that when others learn about the work that gets done by the people who call themselves United Methodists here in Flint, they feel compelled to help. And the divine grace that creates their compulsion lies at the heart of God’s Word found in this text from Isaiah. “You will be like a garden with plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry,” God says through the Prophet. And I see this in the people around me. I feel this in the depths of my soul (Isaiah 58:11).
Perhaps it is the abundance surrounding me as I walk around the Asbury Farms campus that sits a short walk from the church. Or it could be the massive water bills that come across my desk from the farm team keeping our crops sufficiently irrigated. Yet, I experience God’s promise each time I observe the volunteers at the Asbury Community Help Center or the South Flint Soup Kitchen.
Instead of sending the people away because there wasn’t enough, Jesus organizes a banquet beginning with a seating chart. First, He instructs His disciples to “Tell them to sit down in groups of about fifty each.” And after the people were seated, Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread and fish to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people.
The details of what happened that day leave us to speculate on how it happened, but perhaps this isn’t important. Instead, the story is crystal clear about the what and who. The story ends with everyone eating as they wanted and the disciples picking up twelve baskets of leftovers. God provides abundantly when everyone is given equal access.
I know that turning blighted land into gardens is only a part of the answer. And I believe that turning the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables that God chose to make available into ready-to-prepare meals helps fill the gap between availability and access. And I also know that responding to the call you feed them is a critical beginning.
The rest is up to all of us. We need your help.
Feeding Flint is not a problem of enough. It’s a problem of available healthy options and equitable access. To learn how you can help address food insecurity in our community go to FeedFlint.org.
I invite you to join us for worship during this season of Lent as we consider the ways that scripture addresses the subject of food. In addition, we’ll continue to celebrate Black History with celebrity guest interviews. We gather in the Asbury Arts Center in person and online on YouTube and Facebook. Video replays are available to watch later.
You can join us each Sunday online by going to the button on the homepage of our website – Click here to watch. This button takes you to our YouTube channel. You can find more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.
A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to connect@FlintAsbury.org or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.
“County Health Rankings and Roadmap.” © County Health Rankings, 2022. Retrieved from: Link to Article.
Nushrat Rahman. “Report: Michigan’s food insecurity problem only got worse during COVID-19 pandemic.” © Detroit Free Press, Jan 13, 2021. Retrieved from: Link to Article.
Elaine Waxman and Megan Thompson. “Poor nutrition leaves kids vulnerable to lead poisoning—and not just in Flint.” © Urban Institute, April 7, 2016. Retrieved from: Link to Article.