First Congo Food Justice Ministries
In 2011, it was recognized that a considerable number of individuals and families living in relatively close proximity to the church were suffering from “food insecurity.” Food insecurity is defined as "not always having access to enough food to meet basic needs." This fact was affirmed by a national survey conducted early in 2011, that identified the Memphis metropolitan area as the “food insecurity capital of the United States.”
As a congregation that seeks justice in all its forms, First Congo was determined to help tackle the chronic problem of hunger in Memphis. A talented and vivacious recent college graduate was hired to serve as the church's first Director of Food Justice Ministries. Molly Peacher-Ryan, who had grown up in the church, along with the church pastors, staff, and volunteers, pioneered efforts to alleviate food insecurity in the area surrounding the church in the midtown Cooper-Young neighborhood.
Collaborating with the Mid-South Food Bank, the church developed an action plan to distribute groceries to households in need once a month. Simultaneously, a twice-weekly lunch program was launched, at which a small meal of soup and snacks was offered to hungry neighbors. The congregation supported the efforts with designated donations of food and money, as well as volunteer labor. Over a period of time, the food distribution program grew to serve more than 400 households each month, and more and more hungry people showed up for the free lunch program.
By early 2016, a new communal space had been constructed in the lower level of one of the church's buildings. “The Hub” was created through volunteer efforts to house the church's Global Goods Fair Trade Store, the community lunch program, the food pantry, and the church's clothes closet. The 8,000 square foot hub allowed for the expansion of all these ministries and created a dedicated space for serving people in need.
The lunch program, now known as Cafe Congo, was expanded to a full weekday schedule, serving upwards of 350 people a hot lunch every week. Food is donated by local restaurants and schools, or prepared by volunteers using food bank products and purchased groceries. The First Congo Food Pantry replaced the former monthly food distribution program, and is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, to provide supplemental groceries to more than 150 households per week.
After nearly five years of service, Molly Peacher-Ryan concluded her time with the church and is pursuing other career opportunities. Mark Ratay, a 14 year member of the congregation, veteran nonprofit manager, entrepreneur, and attorney assumed the role of Director of Food Justice Ministries on January 1, 2017. Under Mark's leadership the plan is to expand the community lunch and food pantry ministries to serve more people as word of the ministries spreads across Memphis. Working with more restaurants, schools, and grocery stores to distribute reclaimed food is a burgeoning effort that will allow for even greater inroads into reducing food insecurity in Memphis.
Also under the umbrella of Food Justice Ministries are the Blessed Bee and community garden projects. The congregation supports bee keeping as a tangible symbol of the need to help repopulate the decimated pollinating bee population of the Mid-South, and the community garden, in season, supplements the lunch program and food pantry with fresh vegetables.
The Food Justice Ministries are entirely dependent on volunteer labor and contributions of food and funds. As the programs continue to grow, more volunteers and contributions will be needed to support all the efforts to curb hunger in the vulnerable population of Memphis and Shelby County.