Wake Forest Community Meals

Posted By Brad Walker

Here’s a number to consider: 7,045. It’s a big number, and, as of Monday night,  it represents the number of meals served by the Wake Forest Community Meals program since April 20, 2020, according to program coordinator and guest speaker Joy Shillingsburg. 

Karelene, President (Left) and Joy Shillingsburg (Right via Zoom)

Many Rotarians first met Joy in 2017 when she initiated a Wake County Summer Nutrition Program at Olive Branch Baptist Church in the town’s northeast sector.  That 10-week program provided food for insecure families and an opportunity for churches and civic groups such as Rotary to get involved, building strong community connections.  

During the next two years, the summer program expanded to serve even more families and added the additional year-round component of monthly Monday night community meals at the municipal Alston-Massenberg Center just across the street from Olive Branch.

And then, along came Covid-19 in March 2020.  Like virtually every other activity, the meals program shut down.  Joy, along with other towns, county, local civic leaders, struggled to reimagine how they could deliver hundreds of hot meals each week to a vulnerable community that needed food more than ever. 

By April, they had developed a new plan: the location would shift from Olive Branch and Alston-Massenburg Center on Taylor St. to Hope House on N. Allen Road, a site that offered storage capability as well as a large outdoor work area with picnic tables.  The tables, lined up beside a quiet side street, would become the holding area for the hundreds of bagged meals that recipients could drive by and retrieve Monday-Wednesdays between 5-6 p.m.

The revamped meals program officially began on April 20 and continued through August. Joy gave a special shout-out to Rotarian Barb Neudecker and her Culver’s Restaurant for donating hard-to-find gloves, sanitizer, and other PPE materials needed to protect volunteers as well as clients during the pandemic’s early days.

As word spread, the number of nightly meal distributions grew from 50 to 100 to as many as 300 some nights. Although the summer distribution ended in August, community meals have continued twice a week: Monday nights with hot meals at Hope House and Wednesday nights with non-perishable pantry staples at Olive Branch.

Either way, food comes from area vendors through federal funding. The USDA Summer Nutrition Service Program guided the summer program, with Boston Market being the primary vendor. In other months, the more flexible federally CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) has been the primary funding conduit to states, which then create “hubs” and “spokes”  administered by individual counties. Wake Forest is one of 14 “spokes” in the Northeast hub, and Joy works with Tri-Area Ministries (TAM) for paperwork and other required documentation.  Additionally, the Biden Administration plans to launch a food service program that further engages hard-hit restaurants. 

Perhaps equally important as the actual meals, however, has been the opportunity to create relationships and connections throughout the community, said Joy.  Consider these examples:

  • Over a dozen organizations, including Rotary, have participated in safely packing or serving the meals since the meals program’s inception in 2017
  • Flexible CARES funding allows Joy to diversify the food vendors, engaging more local providers
  • During the summer, fresh salads from The Lemon Tree cafe in downtown Wake Forest supplemented the main meal, and frozen casseroles from different restaurants were offered for another meal later in the week.
  • Farm to Boxes, another CARES program connecting local farmers, became a part of the program in late summer, providing sweet potatoes, turnips, apples, leafy greens, and other seasonal produce.
  • Bagged desserts, such as cookies and brownies, are prepared weekly by volunteers from churches, youth groups, and older people who cannot get out but want to help
  • Hundreds of hand-sewn masks have been donated to be included in bags. 
  • In addition to hot meals, salads, and desserts, the bags also contain milk and other snacks, like fruit bars and nuts, along with sandwiches from Chic Filet or from a high school service group
  • The bags become useful tools for distributing information, such as school surveys or Note in the Pocket clothing referrals. 
  • Page 158 has donated “tons of books” for children
  • The site continues weekly distribution of Backpack Buddy bags, about 200 monthly,  to eligible children who normally would receive the bags at school.  [On this point, Barb gave a shout-out to Joy for helping find a Northeast Wake Backpack Buddy pantry “headquarters” after the Rolesville site was no longer available.  Barb is on the NEWBB board; the area pantry is now located at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wake Forest where Joy works as Director of Youth and Outreach]
  • When available, partners such as Interfaith Food Shuttle provide extras, such as eggs, bread, beans, and other items.  

In recounting how much this program has meant to the broader community, particularly through the relationships being built, Joy shared a recent memorable anecdote: one evening, a recipient called out from her car to tell Joy just how much she appreciated the meals and delicious food.  She told Joy that she “had not had such good food since her mother passed away” some time ago. Currently, Gwynn Sneed, a member of Friendship Chapel Baptist Church and a caterer, is providing about 90 meals a week, and her cooking was on the table that night. “Gwynn is so creative and wonderful,” said Joy.  “She cooks what warms the soul.” 

Warming the soul seems to be what the Wake Forest Community Meals program does for the overall community. Many, many thanks to Joy and her team of providers, volunteers, and leaders who help us all stay connected during these trying times. 

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