Local PBS station WTCI has filmed a "Greater Chattanooga" episode titled "Hunger at Home" that details food insecurity in the area. Chattanooga Food Bank Executive Director Gina Crumbliss says the problem affects 1 in 4 children in the community and touches students within every Hamilton County school.
Teachers report spikes in attendance on Fridays and Mondays from children who don't always have food on the weekend and depend on their school lunches, she says. Producer Bo Wheeler visited Barger Elementary, Woodmore Elementary, East Brainerd Church of Christ, Ringgold United Methodist Church and New Hope Presbyterian Church to tell the story of hunger and local efforts to combat it. "Hunger at Home" can be seen online at www.greaterchattanooga.org/home-1/hunger-at-home, on WTCI's social-media outlets, on the PBS app and on air this fall when the new season debuts.
"Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
— Matthew 25:37-40
There were mountains of macaroni but no blue boxes in sight last Sunday as three area Presbyterian churches gathered to pack pasta for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.
These "Hunger Heroes," as they dubbed themselves, didn't exactly resemble a Kraft assembly line, but their mission was the same: Feed the masses with macaroni and cheese.
When they were done, these local mac packers from Rivermont, Northminster and Second Presbyterian churches exceeded their goal of 20,000, with 20,022 packages filled.
"We had about 150 people, and we finished in an hour and a half," says Jack Danner, co-chairman of the Community Life Committee at Rivermont.
Their precision was impressive, averaging just over 222 packages per minute.
"It did seem to go really fast," says Claire Broome, secretary at Second Presbyterian, who brought her 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to help.
Danner says involving all ages was among the objectives of this community missions project. Child care was provided for preschoolers, but children as young as 5 were pressed into service to decorate boxes and perform other simple tasks.
Such projects, Danner says, are part of the churches' focus on developing "a community of people who work together, worship together and enjoy each other's company."
All of the equipment and ingredients were supplied by Iowa-based nonprofit Outreach Inc., which estimates that 49 million Americans are food-insecure. As defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity, at best, indicates a diet lacking in quality, variety or desirability of food; at worst, there is not enough food at each meal or too little food for three meals.
The Presbyterian packing party started shortly after Sunday services ended. Congregants of the three churches gathered in the gymnasium at Rivermont on Hixson Pike. Several volunteers had worked the day before to set up tables and ready the raw materials.
First came the disposable hairnets, aprons and gloves for anyone handling food. Then participants dispersed to one of 12 extra-long tables and began the process of measuring the dry macaroni — "great big bundles of macaroni put out into tubs," Danner says.
Soon, everybody in the room was elbow deep into the project — pouring two cups of 1-inch noodles into each bag, followed by a cup of soy and a cheese packet as the bags went down each makeshift assembly line.
Outreach adds soy, a source of protein, to boost the nutritional value of its mac and cheese. As such, each packet is considered a meal.
"People who pack the macaroni and cheese packets often are amazed at how much more nutritious the Outreach product is than typical boxed products," says Carol Secord, director of congregational life at Rivermont.
Once the ingredients were in, the bags were weighed — "we were allowed a plus or minus each way," says Danner. Then the bags were sealed, labeled, dated, stacked into bundles of 36 and packed into boxes.
The food bank picked up the boxes Monday, though they're not expected to sit on warehouse shelves for very long. Marketing director Scott Bruce says the meals were immediately made available online to the 300-plus agencies that feed clients within the food bank's 20-county region in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.
The meals have a two-year shelf life, but he expects all 20,022 packages will be "out of here within two weeks, probably less."
"Macaroni and cheese is a desired commodity," he says, "so it goes fast."
Besides providing manpower, the churches raised $5,000 to pay for materials and shipping of the ingredients and equipment from Outreach. Half of the money came from Rivermont, according to Danner. Northminster and Second Presbyterian each chipped in $1,250.
Because Outreach works in bulk quantities, each packet costs only 25 cents to make, so each $10 donation can provide meals for 40 people.
Danner says event organizers had been assured the mac and cheese was appetizing, but they proved it with a tasting party ahead of time.
"We sampled some of it," he says, "and it was delicious."
Contact Lisa Denton at email@example.com or 423-757-6281.
CORRECTION: One of the participating churches, East Brainerd Church of Christ, was inadvertently left out of the "Hunger at Home" info box.