Brown paper bags are becoming a symbol of hope in the area thanks to a coordinated effort by a handful of local churches.
St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Apex, St. Francis of Assisi Church in North Raleigh, St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Wake Forest and St. Eugene Catholic Church in Wendell are the primary hubs for what is known as the Brown Bag Ministry – a nonprofit organization that provides free bag lunches to those in need each Saturday.
The ministry began in 2005, when the Apex church made its first handout of 25 bag lunches consisting of a sandwich and a few sides. Today, it combats hunger in Durham, Raleigh, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon, offering free weekly meals to thousands of people.
The ministry lives on donations of food and money. Some of the food is purchased from the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, and some comes free from the food bank.
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The cause originally served the homeless in Raleigh’s Moore Square exclusively, but that changed with the realization of a growing need.
“(People) you might consider on the edge, they have enough money to pay for rent, but may not have enough to provide a meal at dinner,” said David Legarth, the chairman of the ministry and a coordinator for the St. Andrew operation. “They have to decide do they pay for medication, for heat, for gas in their car, or do they buy dinner that night and do without lunch.
“The people on the edge really have to make that decision on a daily basis.”
Feeding the thousands
About 1,250 bag lunches are now prepared at St. Andrew, 350 at St. Catherine and 100 at St. Francis each week. St. Andrew continues to distribute 180 of its bag lunches at Moore Square, where the church also provides a hot meal on the second and third Saturday of every month.
From the St. Andrew outfit, 400 bag lunches are dispersed in Durham, 200 are passed out along Poole Road in Raleigh and 150 go to homeless camps in the Raleigh area. Another 100 are passed out in the Southeast Raleigh community, and any remaining bags are taken to the South Wilmington Street Center, the county’s homeless shelter for men.
This week marks the third anniversary of St. Eugene’s involvement in the ministry. Since 2010, the Wendell branch’s operation has increased from 250 to nearly 1,000 bag lunches distributed each Saturday.
On average, it takes an assembly line of 20-30 volunteers an hour and a half to prepare the lunches at St. Eugene on Saturday mornings. From there, 50 are hand-delivered to apartments in Wendell and 300 more are sent to housing authority homes in Wendell and Zebulon.
Tom Falvey, the coordinator for the St. Eugene’s end of the ministry, said children are waiting at the door when he and other volunteers arrive to drop off their lunches on Saturdays around noon.
“You can here them go, ‘Oh, lunch, lunch, lunch,’ ” Falvey said. “What you’ll find out is a lot of these kids get a meal during the school week, but on the weekend, they don’t always.”
Two hundred more bag lunches are delivered to the Helping Hand Mission in Wendell, where director Jane Coley said people of all ages take advantage of the free meal.
“It’s adults ... it’s kids riding up on bikes and skateboards, who know they can come in and get a snack,” Coley said. “They’ll get a brown bag lunch and then get a box of cookies for a dessert.”
Free drive through
The other 400 bag lunches prepared at St. Eugene are taken to Zebulon United Methodist Church, where church volunteers set up a booth and operate the equivalent of a drive-through – only at no cost to the customers.
It takes no more than a half-hour for the Zebulon workers to hand out 280 lunches on site. The remaining 120 are distributed door-to-door.
The ministry means a lot to Zebulon locals Daniel and Isabell Martinez, who have four children ages 6 to 12.
“Every place is expensive when you have this many kids,” Isabell Martinez said. “That’s around $20-25 for four kids we would have spent at (a fast-food restaurant). We thank these people that work together for all people.”
Falvey said that the free meals keep families nourished and offer hope but that more people in eastern Wake could use the ministry’s help. He said that’s why ongoing support from groups such as his and the food bank are important.
“Having food for everybody, but at least the kids, is the ultimate goal,” Falvey said. “I could easily do 2,000 (bag lunches) right now if the means were there. The need is there, absolutely.”