Project Suppertime is not a new program for the Northern Boulevard United Methodist Church in western Independence.

But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for it has gone up exponentially.

Rev. Sarah Wimberley and her church started the ministry to help feed the hungry in 2016 – what she calls a “fishes and loaves kind of thing,” referring to Jesus’ miracle of the five loaves of bread and two fishes feeding 5,000 people. From 15 to 20 volunteers assemble at the church every Thursday to pass out food and other items to those in need from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

They started helping feed a few families, around 55 people each week. Since the coronavirus pandemic started, that number has risen to as many as 90 families and around 325 to 350 people each week.

“It’s gone up quite a bit since all this started,” Wimberley said. “... When you consider that we're helping 55 in house when there was no anything (like the coronavirus pandemic), then you consider the last time we served that low a number was I don't even know how long ago – probably close to four years. … We have been seeing more doubled up and tripled up families, multigenerational families, especially between income issues, job issues and the housing issues. We fill out a weekly report, not only for our finances, but to report to Harvesters. The numbers have spiked.”

“... But it's part of our mission. Our mission is to be the hands and feet of Christ. This is one of our consistent ministries. We have a couple more, but right now this is the one that's most urgent.”

Every Thursday, cars begin to line up in the church parking lot for the helping hand as early as 3:30 or 4 p.m. They have snaked all the way around the block and into the lot.

Wimberley said that Project Suppertime is helping to fill a void with its evening starting time.

“We're told that some of these families, this is it,” the pastor said. “These are people who can't get to Community Services League during their 9-to-2 hours because they're working at a job, so that's why we do it at night.”

The church receives most of its supply from Harvesters Food Network, but also receives help from grants or food collections by individuals, businesses, civic clubs and their own parishioners. Kookers Kare, a barbecue restaurant owners club, has also donated, and the Community of Christ church has donated overages from its warehouse.

‘It’s a big help’

Volunteers assemble packages for the families, depending on what they have in stock. People being helped can request different items as well, like hygiene items, toilet paper, diapers and formula or over-the-counter medicines if they are in stock. Kasie Parry, who coordinates Project Suppertime, prepares a list each week, and the people receiving the help can request they leave things out because of preferences or food allergies. Volunteers fill out the necessary paperwork for the people being helped, whether they have been coming weekly or are new.

“I thank God every week they're here,” said John Frizzell, who lives less than a mile from the church and walks there each time. “They help me get through the weekend when times get hard, which is nice. … A friend of mine told me about it a while ago. I said, ‘I'm going down there,’ and I've been doing it ever since. It's a big help.”

Parry said she and the volunteers get as much out of it as the people receiving the help.

“We really enjoy helping everybody because we're kind of a family amongst ourselves, even if we really don't know everybody who volunteers. It's like community involvement, and we all enjoy it,” Parry said. “That's why we do it every single week. As for the people who pick up the food, they're really appreciative and they tell us all the time how grateful they are.”

Transportation issues

But Wimberley pointed out they are not looking for thanks, just a chance to help.

“We always start with a prayer for everybody here, thanking God for letting us serve,” the pastor said. “Instead of making them feel grateful, we're grateful that we're able to help them.”

Wimberley said that they start with people who walk, ride bicycles or take the bus to get there. And she is worried that bus service has been cut already and may be cut even more because of the pandemic.

“One of our biggest things is if they're on foot or bicycle or they're riding the bus – since now the hours for the bus are shorter by an hour – we try to get those folks first, so they have an opportunity to get home at a decent hour,” Wimberley said. “... One of the big concerns we have is that if the buses are cut, then it's going to make it that much harder for many people. The last bus now comes by at 6 (p.m.), so we have to start with those people first.”

Rebecca Lovelace-Comstock said she rides the bus every week from her home near the VA hospital in Kansas City to get assistance.

“I come over here almost every week. They're very helpful, they're sweet, they're kind, but my biggest issue right now is the buses,” she said. “When they were running their regular schedule, it wasn't a problem. I could get over here and get home and not have to walk very much. Right now they're running a Saturday schedule, so by the time I get done here and get over to where I live, I have to walk up a steep hill to just get home. I have edema in both legs, I've got a hip that needs to be replaced, so it just about kills me. But, you know, I still come over because I need the food.”

Despite the trouble getting back and forth, Lovelace-Comstock is appreciative of the help.

“It's been a huge help – a tremendous help,” she said. “I know that at one point in time me and my husband couldn't even afford toilet paper, and we could come over here and get food and toilet paper. We can get hygiene products here, too, if they have them. It's a huge, huge help. I love this place.”

More are in need

Wimberley said it’s not just people who rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, but they are beginning to see people they never thought they would see in a food line.

“We have people who say if it weren't for us getting them over the bump – and that was before (the coronavirus) – that they would be really struggling,” Wimberley said. “We've seen even people with nice vehicles coming through now, where you know that they are trying to keep their vehicles running and their payments up, so they don't have enough left over for food.”

Parry said the volunteers have become close, and they are getting close with the people who need help. Some of the people who have been helped have in turn become volunteers.

“Not only are we a family of volunteers, we also kind of get to know the people we're helping. We know them by name,” she said.

Added Wimberley: “We always tell them, 'You can come back next week.' We don't tell anybody they can't come back the next week. They can always come back.”