When Pastor Georgia Dennis and her husband Pastor Tracey Dennis set out on a trip to Staples for school essentials for their son, Pastor Georgia had no idea that it would change her path forever. She considers this moment a divine commission to open a food pantry for the families in her community.
“There we were, standing in the aisle and looking at prices when I just started to cry. I said to my husband, ‘Can you imagine the parents who have three, four, or even more children that have to choose between feeding children and buying school supplies?’” said Dennis.
Love Ministries sits in a community that is home to large numbers of low-income households, where over 15% of the population lives in deep poverty. In addition to a food distribution organization, Love Ministries Outreach International also operates a summer program which includes providing nutritional meals for youth participants. All children are eligible to participate, regardless of income. Love Ministries Outreach International also serves both Camden and Burlington counties families who are in need of food.
“We serve more than food. Food is our strongest arm, but distributing food as part of the Food Bank of South Jersey, that’s how we began to see the many needs in the community. That led to children and youth programs, fit and wellness initiatives, and even safe sleep education programs for first-time parents,” she said.
At the food distribution, families have the opportunity to browse and shop for items that suit their needs with dignity. The pantry offers a combination of fresh food, including Kosher items, organic products, and fruits and vegetables. Love Ministries also accepts requests and fulfills them whenever possible.
Pastor Georgia estimates that 60% of the families who visit the food pantry visit regularly, falling short of the guidelines for government food assistance. But nothing could prepare Love Ministries Outreach International for the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications for the families they serve.
“We serve more than food. Food is our strongest arm, but distributing food as part of the Food Bank of South Jersey, that’s how we began to see the many needs in the community. That led to children and youth programs, fit and wellness initiatives, and even safe sleep education programs for first-time parents.”
As the stay-at-home order escalated in early 2020, like many parts of the country, Pennsauken saw surging unemployment. Students who traditionally received food at school were going without those meals guaranteed by the federal government.
“Prior to COVID, we were serving food assistance to 400 families every month. That number has tripled to 300 families per week. We serve so many single mothers who were making difficult choices between arranging for childcare and working to put food on the table. There are also many seniors in need who live alone and have no transportation. We didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we knew we needed to make changes to meet that demand.”
The church facility, located in a residential area, did not have the capacity for the increased volume of individuals needing assistance. In partnership with the township of Pennsauken, Love Ministries Outreach International began conducting its food distribution temporarily at the Pennsauken Community Recreation Complex.
Serving as a Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) site through its partnership with the Food Bank of South Jersey also helped to extend Love Ministries’ reach. In 2020, waivers extended the summer program beyond August, allowing Love Ministries Outreach International to continue its participation for those in need during the ongoing pandemic.
Finally, thanks to a grant through the New Jersey Child Nutrition Fund (NJCNF), created and administered by Reinvestment Fund and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Love Ministries Outreach International has been able to adapt its programs to see the community through the pandemic. The funds will aid the purchase of a transport van, and will support a consultant from Rutgers Cooperative Extension Department of Family & Community Health Sciences to help Love Ministries Outreach International apply to participate as a new sponsor in the Children and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
“It’s difficult to overstate how this funding has helped us continue our mission. Not only was Reinvestment Fund accessible to us every step of the way, but we are able to ensure food is fresh, delivered on time, and transmitted safely through no contact distribution,” said Pastor Georgia. “The support has put wind under our wings to soar above the economic crisis and continue to distribute food and fight against food insecurity.”
As other food banks have made the difficult decision to close their doors, the grant funding has allowed Love Ministries Outreach International to stay open for a new flood of South Jersey families who are navigating food insecurity.
“These families depend on us every single week. It’s a blessing to look into the eyes of those parents and assure them that we’re going to be here for them. It takes away the worry. That’s why we’re in this, and it is a great pleasure to serve the families in South Jersey.”