WHEN THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC STRUCK LAST YEAR, Father Tim Oudenhoven, pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Abbotsford and St. Louis Parish in Dorchester, found himself with unexpected downtime on his hands. “COVID left me very much pondering what I was going to do to fill my time,” Father Tim remembers. “We were restricted to only nine people at a private Mass, and there were no CCD programs or home visits allowed. My ministry went from 90 mph to 20 mph pretty quickly.”
He began to have phone conversations with health and social service personnel in Clark and Marathon counties to determine some of the biggest needs in the community. “We became aware that the Abbotsford School District was distributing food to families in a few locations around town. The need for food was huge, but they were a bit overwhelmed,” Father Tim says. To address this growing issue, the Abbotsford Area Collaborative Team was formed to establish a pop-up food pantry that provides nutritious and consistent food to those facing food insecurity—an inability to access affordable, healthy food.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, even before the pandemic hit, around 13.7 million households, or 35 million Americans, experienced food insecurity at some point during 2019. The pandemic only worsened the problem and households experiencing food insecurity were estimated to double in 2020. In addition, with schools closed, many children no longer had access to school lunches, which were often a main source of nutritional meals. For the first time, many families faced the frightening prospect of being uncertain where they would get their next meal.
We help all people in need no matter who they are or where they come from.” -Gloria
The Abbotsford Area Collaborative Team first worked with the United Way of Marathon County and the Neighbor’s Place to tackle the problem. Soon, the volume of food needed grew too large for these agencies to handle. There was also the concern of consistency. “The problem was, the food we were receiving wasn’t comprehensive enough,” Father Tim says. “One week, we got just dairy products, and then the next week, only produce. And some weeks, we didn’t get anything at all, which was heartbreaking to have to turn families away.”
Father Tim reached out to the Feed My People Food Bank in Eau Claire to see if they could provide consistent food distribution to the Abbotsford food pantry. “We became partners right away,” he says. “The folks at Feed My People were happy to collaborate with us and expand their services into our community.” Feed My People has served as a leader in hunger-relief efforts across west-central Wisconsin for almost 40 years. They have a 45,000-square-foot distribution center in Eau Claire to disperse donated food from manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and growers that might otherwise be thrown away.
The pop-up food pantry established a regular site—St. Bernard Church—and a regular time for food distribution each week—Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Father Tim says they also work hand-in-hand with Clark and Marathon counties, who deliver food to people’s homes each week with the help of volunteer drivers. “They pick up food from us to deliver to 30 to 50 families every week,” he says. In addition, the food pantry serves an average of 160 to 180 families each week. “It comes out to about 10,000 to 14,000 pounds of food distributed weekly,” Father Tim says. “Feed My People sends two 20-ton trucks to us every week with breakfast items, produce, dairy products, meats and baked goods.”
Father Tim says he is grateful for the faithful volunteers who make the food pantry a success, many of whom are not his parishioners. “I always say this isn’t a ‘Catholic thing,’” he says with a laugh. Volunteers also come from other area churches, community members and local businesses.
Since the area has a large Hispanic community, the volunteers are a bilingual team that love to joke in Spanglish. “We have a Spanish word of the day, ranging from really cold, to onion or bad potato,” Father Tim says. About 20 to 25 volunteers come each week to help. “We are blessed with a dedicated core team—many who have been with us from the very beginning—who volunteer every week,” he says. “It can be very hard work, but we have a lot of fun and it’s been an amazing effort for the community.”
One core volunteer at the food pantry is Gloria Sebold. Along with tracking how many people are served each week, she also organizes non-food items to be available for families. “At my table, I have children’s toys, books and items like laundry soap and hand sanitizer,” Gloria says. “I also work with Judy at Circle of Faith Thrift Store in Medford on getting toys, books and other items for a donation or very little money. Judy works on helping me with all my needs for our children and parents. As with all the volunteers, we help Father Tim with whatever he needs done.”
Another key volunteer is Rod DeCaire, who signed up to help within the first few weeks of the food pantry’s inception. “We saw there were a lot of people in need and we had to see what we could do to make sure they were being taken care of,” Rod says. “It’s nice to see the community come together in this way.”
Gloria says she enjoys working together for the same cause. “We help all people in need no matter who they are or where they come from,” she says. “God has given me the ability and means to help others and, as Matthew 25:40 states, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Serving God and His people is what it’s all about.”
Father Tim says the food pantry is a lifesaver for so many, especially during the pandemic crisis. It also served as a much-needed beacon of hope during an otherwise dark time. “Last year, a lot of parishes saw their parking lots empty every week, but ours was full of activity. We were working harder as a parish than ever before, trying to serve the community,” he says. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself asking how we could serve the people of God when they can’t come to church. Thankfully, we found the answer and we’re able to feed all these people. It’s a great feeling. The program is such a success, and we don’t plan on stopping it any time soon.”
Story by Mary Ellen Bliss
Published in the July/August 2021 Catholic Life Issue