University UMC excels at meeting community needs during the COVID-19 pandemic
December 8, 2020 / By Galyn Murphy-Stanley, Neighborhood Outreach & Food Center Coordinator, University United Methodist Church
The Food Center @ 324 University Ave. lives inside University United Methodist Church (UUMC). We sit at the edge of Downtown Syracuse and Syracuse University in a magnificent church built after a 1914 fire destroyed the previous church structure. We are perfectly situated to easily reach, engage, and connect with our diverse Syracuse community.
University United Methodist Church is striving to meet our mission statement of “Feeding God’s People: Body, Mind and Spirit” with every action, every day with each person who visits and joins our efforts.
One of our most thriving ministries is our Outreach ministry, which manages our Food Center @ 324. The title “Food Center @ 324 University Ave.” is relatively new, added just about the same time as COVID-19 precautions and restrictions arrived in Central New York.
The Food Center @ 324 is a uniting of three smaller food pantries that individually provided Emergency Food access sites to the majority of people who live in the Southeast quadrant of Syracuse.
Through a carefully crafted merger guided by the Food Bank of CNY and the pantry coordinators of Temple Society of Concord, Grace Episcopal Church and University United Methodist, we have joined to become one—The Food Center @ 324 University Ave.—where we combine resources, volunteers, food, and finances to provide Emergency Food Access to the food insecure of the entire Southeast quadrant.
COVID brought an additional designation by the Food Bank of Central New York for the Food Center @ 324 to become an Emergency Food Access site to all of Syracuse’s residents. In less than two weeks’ time, we pivoted from a midsized food pantry and free breakfast site serving a large part of Syracuse’s Southeast quadrant to all of the food insecure people in Syracuse.
We quickly worked to meet and adjust to the needs of our city’s residents while keeping ourselves safe. We lost most of our volunteer workforce immediately. Remaining UUMC staff were redirected toward Emergency Food distribution and were identified as essential workers by Gov. Cuomo.
The Food Bank began sending us COVID relief and USDA foods by the pallets that quickly needed to get out to the people of Syracuse.
The basement of University Methodist became and remains an Emergency Food Facility. Our classrooms are filled with canned goods and shelf-stable foods, while our Fellowship Hall holds a snake of tables with 300 large cardboard boxes waiting to receive food products, inserts and notes every week.
Our original food pantry holds the equipment needed to move foods off trucks weekly into the basement and get them repacked and back up to the waiting people who sit in their cars or in a line on the sidewalk arriving by foot, taxi, or bus.
Almost every Friday, we distribute about 300 Emergency Food boxes that volunteers and staff of the Food Center @ 324 create. The grocery boxes are filled with diverse, nutrient-dense food choices and toilet paper that could satisfy a family of four for three days.
The Food Bank of CNY continues to send us several pallets of USDA and NYState COVID relief food boxes. The content of the COVID boxes changes regularly but we get enough for every family to receive this additional offering.
We strive to have each family receive these two boxes (one grocery box and one COVID relief box = 600 food boxes to 300 households) weekly. More than 1,200 individuals receive emergency foods through UUMC’s Food Center each week. The largest sub-group of individuals is children, easily adding up to 60% of individuals accessing food.
Our Sunday morning community breakfast has continued without interruption and has become an important time to visit and connect with about 65 transient friends each week. This ministry provides a free, generous to-go breakfast of hot coffee, bagel, cream cheese, hard-boiled egg, cheese stick, protein bar, bottled water, fresh produce and facemasks to the most marginalized people of Syracuse.
This effort fills the Narthex of University United Methodist Church, which also includes our large winter outerwear collection for guests to access for themselves as needed each Sunday morning. A warm/dry moment, bathroom access and hand sanitization round out this very popular weekly event.
Frequently, we will host auxiliary programs/events that our guests are able to access. These attempt to meet an identified need of the community. The first Friday of every month is Diaper Bank day. In November we moved 18,000 baby diapers to 360 families for their babies. University United Methodist is one of the first partner agencies of the Diaper Bank of Central New York. As we’ve watched the Diaper Bank grow, we have been able to meet the needs of our community better than ever. Always identified by the Diaper Bank as an “open site,” University United Methodist is able to provide diapers to anyone who needs them.
In October we were able to host Walgreens for a Flu Vaccine clinic and Upstate Medical University’s first-year medical students in a health fair where guests could get a blood pressure and prediabetes screening. Both events were completed in a COVID-safe manner, where masked guests remained in their cars and were approached by a sanitized, masked professional. Both events had a record number of participants.
Through the summer the U.S. Census Bureau joined us on several Friday mornings in collecting the information they needed from our guests to get everyone counted. The NAACP visited on many occasions to get our guests registered to vote. Planned Parenthood arrives monthly to offer their outreach efforts, especially in the areas of job readiness and support on family planning/education.
The Tenants Union of Syracuse provides monthly flyers explaining tenants’ rights and empowering our guests in the knowledge of how to fight for those rights. Cornell Cooperative Extension has been invaluable in providing inserts on COVID-safe practices, healthful recipes for the included foods and additional Emergency Food Access sites throughout the county.
Syracuse University and Upstate Medical University students and staff who historically have used the Food Center @ 324 as a volunteer/ teaching/ learning site have changed their efforts to provide a COVID safe way to engage with the people of Syracuse. Providing hygiene kits, to-go food bundles, knitted outerwear, socks, women’s sanitary items and soaps, we have kept our relationships alive with our local universities. The Kia Foundation provides us with an endless supply of pet foods that we turn around to our guests who are pet owners.
Our pastor, Alicia Wood, our Board of Trustees, our Governing Board, our congregation, our mission statement, the joining of Grace Episcopal Church and the Temple Society of Concord, our vast network of agencies, institutions, media information sharing and healthy relationships to the many pieces of the emergency food system empowers us to do our called upon work each day. This strength enables us to meet the needs of the people of Syracuse and beyond.
“This University Church loves all people,” two of our guests called to each other across the street during a food distribution. “They don’t care. They love us all.”