Back when I was a confused, selfish teenager I had an experience with God where He asked me to be his “Jesus of Suburbia.” Ever since then my seldom mission in life has been to represent the character and love of Jesus to my community around me. The biggest part of this has been to put the commands of Isaiah 58:7 into action, “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the homeless wanderer and do not turn away your own flesh and blood.” I believe that good deeds create good will within my community and that in turn opens more doors to the good news than it closes.
About half way through college I started to “feed the hungry” at my congregation’s weekly soup kitchen. Two and a half years of being a steady volunteer and donor to that soup kitchen ministry lead me down a road of creating a food-based business that would give jobs to people in desperate need of work. In addition to running this small food business, I work as a part-time tentmaker job in the cafeteria of a factory. When the plant workers go on break, they come buy breakfast or lunch in the cafe.
Between running my own kitchen and working in the cafeteria, I’ve continued to make feeding the hungry a big part of ministry to my city. I’ve been able to redistribute hundreds of pounds of food to people who need it all on my own. And this year I challenged myself: I wanted to see if it would be possible to provide small, weekly meals to the homeless in my community all without a huge ministry or congregation backing me. We are currently on week 12 of the year and I’ve kept up the small meals with little to no problem. They’ve been as simple as 15 pb&j sandwiches with 2 pounds of potato salad and as complicated as 30 plates of Parmesan chicken with sides of funeral potatoes and green bean casserole.
As I’m following in Jesus footsteps and sharing food with Him when He is hungry, I am learning a lot about food and realizing there are ALWAYS opportunities to share good food and good news with a hungry neighbor. This article is intended to be a how-to guide for any other brethren out there who are hearing the call of the Lord to also feed the hungry in their own way. I’ve seen many different ministries who are feeding masses of people in creative ways, and by no means will I be able to cover all ideas, but I just want to provide you with a guide to how I’ve been able to start my own feeding ministry.
Part I: Where to Get Food
The first thing you’re going to need if you’re starting a feeding ministry is, of course, the food and wouldn’t it be great if there were ways to get it at no cost to you? YOU CAN!
Where to Get Food for Free
My ministry runs primarily off leftovers from work and from my experience, there are endless sources of leftovers from grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and many others that would be perfectly willing to give you the food if you just went and explained to them what you’re doing. They’re just planning on throwing out the food anyway, so all you need is to do is ask them for it before it ends up there. If you think they’ll be concerned about legal issues or liability, skip down to Legal Questions.
Besides asking businesses for their leftovers, you could also approach food banks or other ministries who distribute food and tell them what you’re doing. My business used to have a partnership with a mega-ministry that distributed food in the community. We picked up their extra produce and used it to create food products. Our partnership was just supposed to pick up produce but inevitably the pantry would get way more of other food than they could possibly use. There would be 30 lb boxes of frozen chicken, gallons and gallons of milk, and hundreds of carrots. The pantry never had a shortage of food. Nowadays my brother-in-law is a teacher and once a week his school is visited by a bus from the local food bank and they give food to the kids. When the giveaway is over my brother in law let them know that how I use the food and they give him anything that is left over. I’ve gotten dozens of loaves of bread and hotdog buns from these folks.
Very Cheap Places to Get Food
While the main course typically comes from work, there is also inevitably times where I need more than just that to make the menu I have in mind. For those occasions there are three places that I go to. First I check the local discount grocery store; this is a supermarket that sells “second-hand groceries.” All the products here are stuff that was rejected from big grocery stores for one reason or another. The cans are dented or missing labels, they sell halloween candy at Christmas time, and the eggs are a day past their “expiration date” (skip down to Legal Questions for my rant about “expiration” dates). This is a great place to get stuff that is very cheap, but you never know what they might have and what condition it might be in, so for those situations I go to my second stop. The local dollar store is also a surprisingly great place to get very cheap food that is as good as what I can buy at the “real” grocery next door to it. The dollar store even has name brand products – granted they are smaller sizes, but still brand names for $1 plus tax is still pretty cool.
By the way, while you’re at a discount grocery store or dollar store, pick up some aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and a bunch of aluminum foil pans. At my discount grocery store, you can get dented aluminum pans for literally a few cents.
And lastly, I don’t do it often but I also have a membership to Costco Wholesale for my business. I don’t get much food for the ministry from Costco but it is a great place to get paper plates/bowls and plastic forks, knives and spoons. I don’t get food here because it just usually tends to be more than I need for the small meals that I’m currently doing but back when I was volunteering at the soup kitchen, having a Costco membership saved our hides more often than not. The most expensive way to get food. Let me also just mention that the most expensive way to get food for the hungry, but the way that will take you the least amount of time and work is to buy pre-packaged food. Pick up 20 $1 burgers and give them to all the folks holding cardboard signs by the freeway or grab 6 pizzas and take them to the park where you know hungry folks congregate. It can add up but this is a great method for those of us who have a full schedule.
Part II: Cooking the Food
More likely than not your first instinct is to prepare the meals or food at home and then go distribute them. This can be a problem in some cities (see Legal Questions) where the health department requires food to be prepared in a commercial kitchen. Even though I have access to two commercial kitchens, I end up cooking for the hungry at home more often than not because it’s just more convenient for me. When I’m at work, I have work to do. When I’m at home, I have some time to cook. Cooking at home is definitely safe as long as your kitchen is clean and free of pests. I mean you cook for yourself at home after all. You might want to be sure to clean everything with a commercial grade sanitizer just to be sure that it’s all germ-free (instructions here). At home and at work I use a mixture of water and chlorine bleach (Clorox) to sanitize everything. If you want to be extra safe you can wear gloves when preparing food at home. Be sure to wash your hands frequently nonetheless.
If you’re in a city or county that requires you to prepare meals in a commercial kitchen there are a lot of good workable options for you. If you’re a member of a congregation, does your church building have a kitchen? If not do you have Christian friends at a building with a kitchen? This is probably the easiest way for a ministry to find a kitchen to feed people out of. If you can’t get into a commercial kitchen at your congregation, you could also try finding philanthropic restaurants and ask them if you can use their kitchen to prepare meals when they are closed. This is what my business does. We work out of a Mexican Restaurant. They are open for breakfast and lunch we use the space after they close.
Cooking on site
You can always cook on sight, as well. Many health departments will also allow you to cook on sight as long as you keep the food frozen or cold and is unopened until you get on sight. If you are giving out food at a park with a grill you can take packages of frozen hot dogs in a cooler, grill them on sight, and pass them out. You’ll want to have a few things with you if you decide to cook on sight, including a bottle of sanitizer (Clorox), a bucket for the sanitizer, a hand wash station (how to set one up), gloves, hairnets, two separate containers for clean, dirty serving tongs and of course a food thermometer. I also found this tutorial for making a disposable grill for $2 dollars. I haven’t done it yet but it would be a lot of fun to make one of these and roll on up in the park to make pancakes, eggs, and bacon for people.
Part III: Packing the Food
Of course if you’re cooking in a commercial kitchen you could always consider having hungry folks come to you and pick up the food. I don’t do this anymore because my goal is to get the church out of the building and take the love of Jesus to people where they’re at. I generally deliver food to the local park next to the public library where there is always a group of homeless folks. If you’re delivering food, you’re going to need something to pack it in and also something to keep it hot or cold.
This is why we got those aluminum foil pans at the dollar store. You can cook right in these pans and then take them to the park and it doesn’t matter if you get them back or not. If you’re doing sandwiches or burritos you can wrap them in plastic wrap or foil. Alternatively, you can pack food into mason jars. My business used to use the regular Ball or Kerr brand mason jars that you can get at any grocery store. Last year we upgraded to an industrial food jar and we have dozens of the old jars left over so I’ve been putting food in these to deliver to the park. Mason jars are great because they’re made to withstand high temperatures so I can fill them with soup or whatever, put them right in the oven, and then take them as they’re still hot over to the park.
Food borne sickness grow best between 40°F and 140°F. This is called the “Temperature Danger Zone.” So for safety it’s best to keep cold food cold and hot food hot while you are transporting it. Not only that but the food also tastes better if it’s not lukewarm and there’s something so nice about being able to give a plate of hot food to someone who hasn’t eaten for a day or two as you tell them that Jesus loves them and died for their sins. There are also a lot of cheap options for temperature control. To keep cold foods cold just pack them with ice in a cooler.
Catering companies use something called a hot box to keep pans of food hot when transporting it. A hot box is like a big plastic sealed lock box with thick walls that trap the heat in, but they’re very expensive. But what I’ve learned is that Coolers also work as hot boxes. They’re made to keep the temperature inside consistent so it doesn’t matter if you’re putting cold or hot in it, it will keep the temperature consistent. Put aluminum foil pans of hot food right into a cooler and it will stay warm until you drop it off. To keep the food hotter longer you could also wrap some bricks in aluminum foil (yes, bricks), then warm them up in the oven at 425°F for 45 mins. Then place some damp towels on the bottom of your cooler and then add the bricks and place more damp towels on the top of them. The food will stay hotter 3x longer with the bricks.
If you’re looking for a disposable option for keeping food hot, styrofoam coolers work as hot boxes and they are very cheap, but you can’t do the brick trick with them. I’ve used the same styrofoam cooler for months now. I fill it with hot pulled pork sandwiches or burritos wrapped in foil and drop it off at the park. The guys tend walk by, pick up the food, and then I pick it up at the end of the day and go start over. One time when I went back to pick up my cooler the fellas left me a cigarette and beer in the cooler for me as a thank you for the food. I appreciate the thought but I don’t smoke 🙂
Another disposable option that I recently found at my local dollar store: these thermal bags that keep hot food hot and cold food cold, and they hold up to 30 gallons. I bought a bunch of these and use them when I don’t care to get back my hot box. This is all the fun part to me: figuring out what to cook, doing the actual cooking, finding all the tricks and hacks to transport the food and of course sharing the food with hungry people in my community and praying for them. But I am not naive. I know that serving food is a topic that people are sensitive about, especially government agencies. So let’s talk now about some of the legal questions or problems that are likely to come up as you set out to follow Jesus and share your resources.
Part IV: Legal Questions
Is it legal in my city?
Unfortunately, many cities all over the country are enacting “food sharing” laws that are quite obviously more about outlawing homelessness than just keeping people safe. Out of sight, out of mind. These laws require food that is going to be shared in public places to be made in a prior approved and inspected kitchen. But the people who are enforcing these laws are targeting people who are feeding the homeless and they never say a word to countless company potlucks and family reunions that are going on in the same parks. Check this master list to see if sharing food in public is legal in your city or call your local health department and ask them some questions. If it’s not, then move your feeding ministry onto private property, preferably in a church building. If it’s not legal and you can’t find a location, you could always give away prepackaged food or give the food away anonymously, leave it before the park opens or if you’re feeling really subversive wear a mask. I’ve also heard stories about people getting fined for serving food to the homeless and fighting the charges in court on freedom of religion grounds and getting the charges dismissed… Matthew 10:19, anybody?
How do I ask businesses to give me their food? Many businesses assume that they would be liable for anyone getting sick from the food they donate to a food bank or soup kitchen. This is not the case. There are laws in place to protect donors against liability from any problems with their food donations. Look up The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and learn it well. This Act passed in the ‘90 under President Clinton was created in order to encourage more charitable giving. As long as the food is obviously not tampered with, then the donor is protected against liabilities. Not only that but if they give it to a recognized 501(c)(3) organization (such as a church-organization) then they are able to write 50% of the retail value of the food on their taxes. So if they were just going to throw it away, they might as well give it to an organization who will feed people and recover some of that lost cost by counting it on their taxes.
They said I need a $1 million liability insurance policy to use the Kitchen.
It’s fairly common for a restaurant and sometimes even religious organization to require this before they will let you use their kitchen, this way not only are you protected from potential problems but they will ask you to list them as additionally insured so they are also protected. I know one million dollars sounds like a lot but generally you can get coverage for $400 a year. I recommend looking into Food Liability Insurance Program, (FLIP) – which is what my business uses.
OPTIONAL READ: Expiration Dates Rant
Worried about giving someone food that is past its “expiration date?” You shouldn’t and here’s why; expiration dates are a lie. As someone who owns a food manufacturing company I can truthfully tell you that even though the government REQUIRES expiration dates, there is no standard for how they are supposed to be listed. Every company has their own pattern. Not only that, there is no official process for checking expiration dates that are put on food. NO ONE CHECKS THEM. A company can put literally whatever they want on there and the government would never know. Moreover, think about it logically for a moment. If you’re a food maker you’re going to make those dates as tight as you possibly can because the sooner the food “expires” the sooner you need to throw it away and buy more and the more money the food maker gets.
On top of all of that, you need to pay very close attention to the language that’s used on those labels, they almost NEVER say “expiration date” instead they say “Best by,” In other words, that is not an “expiration” date at all, it’s a freshness date. Meaning the food doesn’t magically become dangerous after the date is up, it just won’t taste as fresh and that is all. If the food is hermetically sealed and canned, then what are you even worried about? That’s not an “it will kill you after this date, date.” Really your body has a very reliable way of testing food to see if it’s good: it’s called taste and smell. If the food tastes funny or smells funny, it’s not good anymore. So let’s all just stop taking those silly numbers so seriously already. At best “expiration” dates are just a friendly suggestion about flavor, and at worst they are a disingenuous attempts to get you to throw away perfectly edible food and buy more.
Part V: Conclusion
To wrap up, can I just say that I had a lot of fun writing this article and I really hope that one of my brothers or sisters out there finds finds this useful and motivating. Please know dear brother or dear sister that I’m happy to help with your ministry in any way that I possibly can prayer or whatever. Please go share the love of Jesus with someone today, give them food and teach them about the Lord, let them know that they’re not meant to live on bread alone but the words from his mouth will also sustain them. Comment any questions or ideas you have and I look for ward to hearing from you.
Praying that this guide reaches the people that it needs to.