Heber Springs has at least four food pantries.

The young woman was neatly dressed, and her hair was stylishly arranged.  She was clean and well-spoken.  She sat in my office looking at the floor, seemingly unable to allow her eyes to meet mine.

She spoke softly, “Sir, I have never done this before.  I have never asked anybody for help, but I don’t know where to turn.  I lost my job, and I have another one starting next week, but it is just me.  I don’t have any food, and I am short $200 on my rent.  If I could just make it for another couple of weeks until I get my first paycheck …”

On another day, a mother who looked to be in her early thirties came to my office carrying a baby.  Another child of about three clung to her knee, peering out shyly from behind her mother’s skirt.  Their clothes were a bit worn, and they just looked … well … hungry.  She, too, needed food for her family.

These are but two of a number of people who have come to me recently needing help.  In all of these cases, I was glad to know that, at least for groceries, I could refer them to one of the local food pantries.

Heber Springs has at least four such food pantries.  Community Action Program of Central Arkansas, or CAPCA, has one, as does Cleburne County Cares.  In addition, First Assembly of God and the Arkansas Dream Center offer assistance with food as well.

Arkansas Dream Center also operates a “food truck” to feed hungry children during the summer months.  Year round, Breakin’ Bread Soup Kitchen, located at 8th and Scott, offers meals from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.  The Waychoff Center also serves meals to the elderly each day through “Meals on Wheels.”

There are also a number of food pantries across Cleburne County as well.  These include Storehouse Food Pantry in Greer’s Ferry, Foothills Fellowship in Quitman, Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, and First Pentecostal Church in Guy.  There are probably other resources that I am not aware of also.

That sounds like a lot of resources to help those in need.  However, the plight of the food pantry in Concord is indicative of how close these ministries run on funds.

Just last week, the Sun Times ran a story about the Food Pantry at First Apostolic Church in Concord.  The article quoted Trudy Bruton, the director of the pantry, as saying that they are running short of food and need assistance in order to keep operating.  “Without help, the pantry may have to close in April,” she said.  I understand that their pantry serves about 90 people twice a month, which amount to approximately 300 individuals.

I understand their difficulties.  I serve on the board of directors for Breakin’ Bread, and I can say that having enough money to keep operating is always a major concern.

And the needs for help with food is are increasing.  I know that my money does not go nearly as far as it did even two years ago.  Items that used to cost $1.00 to$2.00 are now $4.00 to $5.00.  Not only that, manufacturers are packing a smaller amount of food packed in the boxes and cans.  Less food for more money.

Then there is the overall poverty in Cleburne.  According to locallabs.org, the median individual income for Cleburne County is $18,898 per year.  That is compared to $26, 564 in the nation as a whole.  That’s about $7500 a year less for people in Cleburne County.  Consider this:  17.4% of people in Cleburne County live in poverty, according to Arkansas-demographics.com.  And that number is growing.

What is the answer?

Some would say that it is to increase the money we spend in programs offered by the government.  I am not going to argue against that.  However, that is not what Jesus has charged us to do.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that in the end, the things we will be judged for as Christians is how we helped others.  In verses 34-35, Jesus says, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …’”  He goes on to say, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me.”

Jesus does not say, “Inherit the kingdom because you started a new government run food program.”  He says, “YOU [emphasis mine] gave me food.”

The fact is this:  The people of God are supposed to care for those who are hungry and in need of food.  If every church would take that to heart, we could eliminate hunger in our lifetime.  We need to do better.

(The Rev. Al Henager is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Heber Springs, Arkansas.  He can be contacted at alhenager@gmail.com.)