(MCC photo/Andrew Bodden)

Katie Gard, right, administrator at Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), tells stories of the impact of grocery bags on Philadelphia community members. ChiChi Oguekwe (center) and Pastor Bernard Sejour (left) also shared stories with the volunteers gathered at the MRC of Harleysville.

On a sunny autumn morning, church leaders and MCC staff from Philadelphia and Ephrata, Pa. stepped inside the Material Resource Center in Harleysville, Pa. to thank the hardworking hands and generous hearts that supply MCC grocery bags to the ministries of Philadelphia churches on a monthly basis. During their visit, they shared stories of how the grocery bags are impacting the individuals and families that receive them. Volunteers at the MRC of Harleysville, an independent organization that supports the ministries of MCC, paused their work and gathered to hear tales of hope and nourishment, both spiritual and physical.

Pastor Bernard Sejour (left) shares the importance of MCC grocery bags with volunteers gathered at the MRC of Harleysville. ChiChi Oguekwe (right) joined Sejour and other Philadelphia church leaders at the MRC of Harleysville.MCC photo/Andrew Bodden

MCC grocery bags, which are known as food boxes at the MCC Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa., contain basic staples such as pasta, rice, canned meat, beans, cereal and peanut butter. For many families, this is an important resource, especially around the holidays and at the beginning of summer when children are out of school. A grocery bag typically feeds a family of four for two weeks and allows households to save money on groceries.

Each grocery bag contains:

 

  • vegetable oil (32 oz.)
  • pasta (2 lbs.)
  • raisins (1 lb.)
  • white rice (32 oz.)
  • 2 cans meat (chicken or tuna) (12 oz.)
  • 1 can tomato sauce (15 oz.)
  • 2 cans fruit (14-20 oz.)
  • 2 cans vegetables (14-16 oz.)
  • 2 cans beans (15.5 oz.)
  • 1 box of cereal (14-18 oz.)

MCC’s food distributions first began in 1982 and primarily supported distributions by Mennonite churches in New York City, Philadelphia and Reading, Pa. around the holiday seasons. Annual food distributions in Reading, Pa. and New York City continue to sustain families in those areas. However, MCC board members and church leaders from MCC’s East Coast region recognized in 2009 that there was a great need in Philadelphia for these food staples all year round—not just once or twice a year during the holidays. Since that decision, the MRC of Harleysville has collected and packed grocery bags and distributed them monthly through Kingdom Builder’s Network (KBN), an MCC partner network of Anabaptist churches and ministries in Philadelphia. Altogether, MCC food distributions reach up to 3,000 hungry families in Pennsylvania and New York.

Sharon Swartzentruber, manager of the MRC of Harleysville, explains the contents of each grocery bag provided to Philadelphia families.MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

Every month, MRC of Harleysville manager Sharon Swartzentruber aims to supply 50 grocery bags with the help of churches and individuals. Area churches take responsibility for certain months of the year, but bags also come from individuals who hear about the program and want to help. Participants can buy all the food themselves, donate money towards the project or visit Landis Supermarkets in the Harleysville area, where they can purchase a pre-packed MCC grocery bag for $25.

Because of these efforts, fifty MCC grocery bags are distributed every month to various KBN ministries that touch a diversity of households. This is one way that MCC East Coast supports the community outreach ministries of Anabaptist churches and organizations in Philadelphia. For immigrant communities in particular, these grocery bags play an essential role in sustaining and encouraging their faith and trust in God. Pastor Bernard Sejour of Solidarity and Harmony Evangelical Church and Solidarity Christian Community Development Association (SCCDA) says, “Immigrants are always on the move, and some of them come with nothing. They rely on the church to serve and provide.” Grocery bags from MCC fill an important need for these newcomers in the Philadelphia community.

At Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), Katie Gard, administrator, receives 15 grocery bags each month to distribute directly to households who struggle financially. At OCCCDA, she says, “Most of the people we come into contact with are struggling to make ends meet from month to month and one of the biggest things that pulls in new people…is that we give out grocery bags.” 

Gard continues, “Grocery bags become the first point of contact that we can draw more people in and open up conversations.” She personally hands out these grocery bags and takes that first point of contact as an opportunity to inquire, “I hear you’re struggling financially. How can I pray for you?” This interaction leads to continued support for the individuals since the community organization also offers free ESL and GED classes, free after school programs, a pre-school and a thrift store.

Ms. Pauline Hicks (left) and Katie Gard (right) pause for a photo in October 2018 as Ms. Hicks receives an MCC food bag from Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA) in Philadelphia. The groceries will save her money by providing basic food staples for her family. Ms. Hicks says that she uses every single item in the food bag.Photo courtesy of Katie Gard

During the visit to the MRC of Harleysville, Gard told a story to the gathered volunteers about Ms. Pauline Hicks, a “hardworking and gracious grandmother” at her church. Ms. Hicks was able to prepare an Easter dinner for her family with the entire contents of the grocery bag, and the only ingredient she had to purchase was chicken. She was proud that the grocery bag provided her with enough food to host her family for the holiday meal very affordably.

Gard added that during this past year, Ms. Hicks had some residual debt that she owed from her old apartment that she was steadily paying off bit by bit. But when she missed one payment, the whole bill came due at once. Ms. Hicks said, “With the money that I saved from not having to buy as many groceries these past few months, and that I didn’t have to spend on Easter dinner for my family, I was able to pay off that bill.”

Gard says, “God is doing something here. He’s empowering people with that extra boost to push through financial roadblocks and assuring people that God is here, providing for people and won’t let go.” By providing these basic food staples to individuals and families in Philadelphia, the ministry of OCCCDA sees ample opportunities to share the love and compassion of Jesus.

She continues, “[This ministry] opens up conversations so that we can get to talking and get to know each other a little better…it’s a beautiful time to be able to connect with them and remind them of God’s provision. The grocery bags become a visual sign of that.”

Church leaders from Philadelphia and MCC East Coast staff shared with volunteers at the MCC Material Resource Center (MRC) of Harleysville, Pa. in October 2018 about the impact that grocery bags are having on churches and needy individuals in Philadelphia. From left: Tom Oelschlager, warehouse coordinator at the MRC of Harleysville, Andrew Bodden, program director for MCC East Coast, ChiChi Oguekwe, Philadelphia program coordinator for MCC East Coast, Katie Gard, administrator at Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), Pastor Bernard Sejour of Solidarity and Harmony Evangelical Church and Nereida Babilonia, administrative assistant for MCC East Coast.MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas


While these grocery bags are having a significant, direct impact each month in the lives of Philadelphia residents, there is still great need. Every month, Gard has a list of about 72 households who need grocery bags, yet she can only give out the 15 bags allotted to the ministry of OCCCDA.

If you’d like to see this program expand to reach more households in Pennsylvania and New York, please consider getting your church or conference involved in collecting groceries. If you live in the Souderton, Pa. area, raise funds to buy grocery bags from Landis Supermarkets. Encourage your youth group to pack bags or boxes. Or drop off packed groceries at any of the following locations in Pennsylvania. Your contributions through MCC will continue to bless up to 3,000 hungry families in Reading, Philadelphia, and New York City.

MCC East Coast Material Resources Center

MCC East Coast regional office

MCC Material Resource Center of Harleysville

Cumberland Valley Relief Center