Episcopalians, ecumenical partners form hunger reduction coalition in Texas

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Sep 7, 2023

An aerial view of the mobile food pantry in Bryan, Texas, operated monthly by volunteers from local churches and organizations that have united to form an anti-hunger coalition in partnership with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. Photo: Rob Johnson

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians from the Diocese of Texas, ecumenical partners and food pantries have teamed up with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty to form a data-based coalition to reduce hunger in Bryan, the county seat of Brazos County, northwest of Houston.

The coalition’s goal is to not only eliminate hunger in the moment, but also in the long term.

“We need to be generous in providing food immediately to people who are hungry, but we also need to be working for justice in the sense that we won’t need food pantries in the future, because it’d mean that [everyone has] the means and resources to purchase food on their own,” said the Rev. Daryl Hay, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Bryan.

The coalition, which formed in June, consists of secular and religious-affiliated organizations and churches, including St. Andrew’s, local protestant churches, Brazos Valley Food Bank and Santa Teresa Catholic Church, all located in Bryan. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, St. Francis Episcopal Church and the Canterbury Episcopal Student Center at Texas A&M University and Blinn College, all located in College Station, have also joined the anti-hunger coalition.

While the coalition is still in its infancy and members brainstorm how to approach long-term hunger alleviation, a team of volunteers from St. Andrew’s and partner churches operates a monthly mobile food pantry out of the local Boys & Girls Club of Brazos Valley’s parking lot in Bryan. The pantry feeds about 400 families monthly, most of whom are Latino, according to pantry site coordinator Mary Johnson, a founding member of the food coalition and parishioner of St. Andrew’s. Approximately 70 volunteers from all of the churches and organizations involved with the coalition help run the pantry each month, which is operating on a temporary two-year budget and expected to close before summer 2024. 

“We’re following the gospel and loving our neighbor … But that promise from our local food bank is only for two years,” Johnson said. “We need to help the people after we stop our pantry.”

The team of volunteers from St. Andrew’s and partner churches established the mobile food pantry after some lay leaders, including Johnson, participated in a “transformation cohort” program hosted by the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the diocese to collaborate with community partners and congregations to provide research solutions to improve the overall health of people residing within the diocese’s radius. The foundation seeks to help local communities find local solutions to address health-care related problems.

“We’re challenging our congregations to move beyond transactional action, instead working with formational action,” said Willie Bennet, the foundation’s congregational engagement officer. “Often [addressing health] stops at a charity work, and it becomes just a transaction, but the usefulness cannot be one-to-one or be born out of a need that doesn’t exist anymore.”

The Episcopal Health Foundation’s “transformation cohort” program helps lay leaders build relationships in their communities by encouraging them to observe everything happening around their church. The foundation then matches congregations with consultants to help them navigate new ministries. The lay leaders at St. Andrew’s, which partnered with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty — an organization that researches and teaches evidence-based solutions to end hunger that’s housed within Baylor University in Waco — noticed that the Latino population in the Bryan-College Station metropolitan area is growing, and many of them are undocumented and therefore do not show up in the U.S. Census data.

The undocumented population also doesn’t show up in the Map the Meal Gap data conducted by Chicago, Illinois-based nonprofit Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks that feed millions of people every year through community-based agencies, including food pantries. The Baylor Collaborative uses the data from Feeding America to search for areas of concern in Texas.

In Brazos County, 14.2% of the population is food-insecure, which is higher than Texas’ overall rate of 13.7%, according to data from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap. The percentages are higher for people of color.

A woman and her son, longtime volunteers, sort and bag fruit at the mobile food pantry in Bryan, Texas. Photo: Angelita Garcia-Alonzo

With new knowledge acquired from the Episcopal Health Foundation and the Baylor Collaborative — as well as by seeing how many families were arriving at the mobile food pantry every month for assistance — lay leaders at St. Andrew’s were ready to initiate a community-wide dialogue, and the hunger reduction coalition was formed in Brazos County.

The first meeting introduced the Baylor Collaborative to the Bryan-College Station community and provided an overview of the collaborative’s work with other anti-hunger coalitions. The second meeting discussed gaps noticed in the food systems locally in Brazos County. St. Andrew’s hosted both meetings. Some of the people who’ve attended the coalition meetings and offered to volunteer are food donation recipients themselves, according to Johnson.

“In order to address hunger and to have our communities be hunger-free, we’re going to require multiple agencies, multiple organizations across sectors, faith communities, government, universities, nonprofit sectors, businesses — all working together to address food insecurity in a coalition and identifying gaps in the system and beginning to address those together,” said the Rev. Andrew Terry, area missioner of the Diocese of Texas.

Even though the undocumented Latino population doesn’t show up in any data, they’re not elusive within the local community. Thousands of them are parishioners at Santa Teresa Catholic Church, a Roman Catholic parish located in Bryan’s Spanish-speaking “barrio” — inner-city — that serves most Latinos in the community, according to Angelita Garcia-Alonzo, the church’s social concerns minister. More than 3,000 immigrant families from Latin America, including more than 1,000 children, are parishioners of Santa Teresa. Some of those parishioners volunteer at the mobile food pantry every month.

Garcia-Alonzo told Episcopal News Service that Santa Teresa doesn’t physically meet the city’s legal requirements to establish a food pantry or soup kitchen on church property, so parishioners are encouraged to go to already-established food pantries in town; however, she said, many of them have been hesitant go to the food pantries, including St. Andrew’s, because they’re located in wealthier neighborhoods.

“These non-Catholic churches are in neighborhoods where [Latino immigrants] do not circulate, unless they go there to clean houses,” Garcia-Alonzo said. “And the food pantries are only open for a short time during hours when people go to work.”

The mobile food pantry has consistently served hundreds of Latino families every month since its founders followed Garcia-Alonzo’s suggestion and began operating its mobile food pantry from the local Boys & Girls Club’s parking lot, located “smack in the middle of the ‘barrio’ where the Latinos live.” The Boys & Girls Club of America is a national nonprofit that provides voluntary after-school programs for children. 

Garcia-Alonzo said all Christians should “put our faith in action and welcome the stranger” by working together to feed the poor because individual congregations can’t do all the work alone. She also said she always reminds parishioners that Santa Teresa works with local Episcopal churches to help them, and they’re grateful that St. Andrew’s reached out to “build a bridge.”

“Jesus calls us to serve the least among us, and [undocumented Latinos] come to this country to work, to put food on the table for their children,” Garcia-Alonzo said. “[The parishioners at Santa Teresa] are very grateful for the work and the fellowship and for the amount of resources that the Episcopalians put in every month.”

Over the summer, the coalition sent out surveys to community members to assess what areas of food security need to be prioritized. Based on the 70 survey responses reviewed during a committee meeting on Aug. 31, the coalition will prioritize establishing a phone number and marketing campaign for people in the community to contact for food assistance. Part of that work will entail gathering available resources to notify community members what’s available to them. A proposal to implement the phone number and marketing campaign will be made at the next coalition gathering scheduled for Sept. 26 at St. Andrew’s parish hall. If approved, the goal will be to pilot the phone number and marketing campaign by the end of 2023.

Volunteers sort through bags of produce to distribute to people at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church’s mobile food pantry in Bryan, Texas. Photo: Rob Johnson

On Oct. 5, volunteers will present the coalition’s progress and what they’ve learned so far at the Texas Health Summit in Austin, a gathering of health leaders from across the state to network and share innovative ideas and effective health practices. In early 2024, members of the coalition plan to participate in a training offered by the Baylor Collaborative to help them more effectively address food insecurity in Brazos County as a team.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.