BERLIN – As a long line of people waited for the doors to open outside the Stevenson United Methodist Church in Berlin earlier this week, congregation members Ray Stevens and Vicky Nock stood in a circle of volunteers with their hands joined together, and their heads bowed in a moment of prayer.
When the doors open a few moments later, dozens of people flood inside to get a hot meal and pick up donated food bags to take with them back to their homes.
The people were bundled in warm clothing, representing a wide range of ages and ethnicities. Yet, the one thing that they all had in common is that they were in dire need of food.
Worcester Ranks High
In Food Insecurity
As the gap between the “have’s” and “have not’s” continues to grow both in the region and nationwide, small organizations like the Spirit Kitchen Food Pantry are finding that the service that they provide is a commodity as hot as the meals they serve.
“Since our inception, we’ve provided more than 24,500 meals,” said co-founder Vicky Nock. “That’s a pretty staggering number because when we started this I don’t think any of us thought we’d be still doing this five years later.”
Nock estimates 60-80 people come through the doors of the Spirit Kitchen Food Pantry each week, and in some cases, it’s even more.
“Sometimes, we have a line of people that stretches up the alleyway around the church for as long as an hour before we open the doors,” said Stevens, “and at this time of the year, when many of the bars, restaurants, and hotels are closed for the season in Ocean City, we can feed more than a 100 people.”
According to statistical data released in 2013 by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks geared toward fighting hunger nationwide, Worcester County is the sixth highest county in the state of Maryland in regards to “Food Insecurity” in its population. At 13.6% of the population or almost 7,000 people, Worcester only ranks behind the Eastern Shore counties of Wicomico (15.5%), Dorchester (16.5%) and Somerset (19.1%) as well as Prince George’s (14.8%) and Baltimore City (22.7%) on the Western Shore.
The USDA defines “Food Insecurity” as a lack of access, at times, for an active healthy life for all household members.
“This is not your run of the mill soup kitchen,” said Charlotte Powell, who manages the actual pantry of food that is housed on what looks like an old stage inside the church. “We provide really good, fresh, and sometimes even homemade food for our guests.”
Filling The Need
The Spirit Kitchen is 100% donation funded, but as the numbers of people coming through the doors continues to grow, Nock and Stevens know that there will be an eventual moment when the demand could exceed the supply.
“We are definitely coming into our busiest time of the year,” said Stevens, “and clearly, we are trending towards more people who need food bags to last them and their families a few days, rather than people just coming in for the free lunch.”
Yet, while the Spirit Kitchen is operated under the roof of Stevenson United Methodist Church, there are volunteers from many different congregations.
“It’s really a wonderful community effort,” said Nock, “but, we beg borrow and steal for every penny that we get because our numbers are growing so much, without the donations coming from so many different places, we could never keep up.”
The food provided does in fact come from a number of different places. In some cases, its bread that would have otherwise been thrown away from Panera, or chicken that has been donated to the Maryland Food Bank (which the Spirit Kitchen must purchase) from Perdue, or even homemade pastries cooked up on the stove of a congregation member.
“Some restaurants will give us the remainder of their food inventory when they close for the season,” said Stevens. “Sometimes it’s a lot and sometimes it’s only a little bit, but it’s always goes a long way here.”
Nock estimates that the Spirit Kitchen has spent upwards of $53,000 in donated money in the past five years to purchase food to provide to those in the community who have fallen on hard times.
Cheryl, a lifelong Berlin resident, is a regular here at the Spirit Kitchen.
“There is such a need in this community for the Spirit Kitchen”, she said, “but it’s not just about the food, it’s like a happy little family here. It helps people who are having a rough time know that they aren’t alone. We look out for one another. Vicky is like the mother figure and Ray is like the father figure.”
Doing Big Things
Stevenson United Methodist Church is a small congregation in Berlin, and while the Spirit Kitchen is certainly not the only group in the region that provides a similar service to those in need, it continues to be there each and every Wednesday morning for the local people who need a meal desperately.
While Nock and Stevens and the group of volunteers at the Spirit Kitchen can’t say with great certainty whether or not the people here will find all the meals they need for a given week, they say they feel good that they can alleviate some of that stress and hunger each week.
Nock says as long as the generous spirit of this community and congregations continue to shine, the doors of the Spirit Kitchen will continue to open and there will always be the promise of good food inside.