Montgomery Association launches mobile food pantry in River Region ‘food desert’

Montgomery Association launches mobile food pantry in River Region ‘food desert’

By Susan Withrow Murphy
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Residents of Lowndes County will find it easier to get regular, nutritious meals thanks to a new “rolling store” whose mission is to help eradicate hunger in rural south-central Alabama. 

The Love Loud River Region (LLRR) Rolling Food Pantry bus took its maiden voyage in November to serve the state’s poorest-of-the-poor, including some 10,000 Lowndes County residents who live in a so-called “food desert.” 

Only one grocery store exists in the 700-square-mile county. But now, thanks to the Montgomery Baptist Association (MBA), its ministry partners and United Way, plans are underway to expand food distribution throughout the River Region.

“Some of our grandparents may have seen rolling food stores during their childhood,” said Neal Hughes, director of missions at MBA. “Few people in Lowndes County have cars so they must pay someone to take them to the store, leaving them little money to buy food or pay bills. The LLRR Rolling Food Pantry allows people in the food desert to shop with dignity.”

‘Essentially starving’

Lowndes County ranks among Alabama’s most food insecure counties, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief network. The county’s residents are primarily African-American and Hispanic, with one-quarter living below the poverty line. More than 20% of residents are elderly and nearly 60% are children, many living in government-subsidized housing. 

Lack of transportation and access to grocery stores result in many Lowndes County residents subsisting primarily on snack food purchased from mini-marts.

“Residents have some food but are essentially starving,” said Hughes. “The food they’re eating has little nutritional value. The incidences of obesity and diabetes is high in these areas.” 

Prior to the LLRR Rolling Food Pantry, church partners were bagging groceries to deliver to residents in rural areas, but the practice was labor intensive and reach was limited. 

“We knew we had to find a way to go from place to place throughout Lowndes County,” said David Fleming, director of leadership development for Montgomery Baptist Association. “It reminded me of when my mother was a little girl during the Depression. When she used to wait for the rolling store to come by her house. We want to help relieve the suffering of people living in desperate times and places.”

Fleming wrote a grant for funding from United Way and was awarded $15,000. With the funds, a school bus was purchased and retrofitted with shelving. Chairs, tables, an awning, a ramp and dietary educational materials also were purchased. 

The shelves are filled with food, purchased for 15 cents per pound from the Montgomery Area Food Bank. 

While clients shop in the bus, volunteers will serve samples of delicious, healthy dishes and offer recipes clients can prepare at home. 

In November the bus took two trips, serving 100 families in both rural and urban areas. One of MBA’s ministry partners is Sylvester Hardy, pastor of Jonathan’s House of Prayer in Hayneville. Hardy also serves as one of the bus drivers for the rolling food pantry.

“Our church has been partnering with the Montgomery Baptist Association, delivering food to residents in our county for about a year,” Hardy said. “I was skeptical at first about the bus being put into service, but to my surprise, the opportunity for clients to shop for themselves seems to give them a sense of pride, and it opened up doors for ministering to them in a way we never experienced when taking food to their homes. They seem much more open to fellowship.”

Serving varied needs means partnering with other ministries. In January, Hope Inspired Ministries will collaborate with the food distribution bus team to offer information on vocational training, obtaining a GED, life skills and employment-related topics. All clients of the rolling food pantry are referred to area churches.

‘Tool and inspiration’

Montgomery Baptist Association has slated the rolling food pantry to serve as a resource for local churches. Twelve volunteers can run the entire process, and a commercial bus license is not required.

“The bus is a tool for churches in our association, and hopefully, an inspiration for churches in other associations,” said Hughes. “It costs only $200 to feed 50 families of four — $1 per person. With the bus, we can meet human need and plant the gospel seed.”