Churches work hard to keep 'blessing boxes' stocked

Churches work hard to keep 'blessing boxes' stocked

The Rev. Daniel Garrett stands beside the blessing box at Byars-Cobbs United Methodist Church, which has seen a lot of action since it was installed June 11.

GLADE SPRING, Va. -- The mini food pantries installed on church properties, called “blessing boxes,” have become a common ministry to serve food-insecure neighbors around the clock, especially since the pandemic caused the creative idea to go ripping through the nation.

The boxes also offer an opportunity for community members to join in the ministry, adding shelf-stable food when they can.
At Byars-Cobb United Methodist Church, the blessing box gets emptied so quickly that church members struggle to keep it filled, spending as much as $500 a week out of their own pockets.
Youth members refill the blessing box
at Byars-Cobbs UMC. (Submitted)

“Nobody’s giving. Everybody’s taking,” said the Rev. Daniel Garrett. “We were stocking it five to six times a week but now we're down to twice a week because we can’t keep up. It’s getting wiped out every day.”
Church leaders with blessing boxes in their care are aware that some visitors take more food than they need, leaving little or nothing behind for their neighbors.
“We pray it all goes to those who need it and then leave it up to the Lord,” said the Rev. Pam Sutherland. “We are not the food police.” Sutherland is pastor of Ft. Gibson United Methodist Church in Castlewood, Virginia, and St. Paul United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Virginia, which both have blessing boxes.
At Fountain City United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, “there are some who will take advantage,” acknowledges Patricia McMahon. The trade-off is “the opportunity to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the community [which] affects our decision to keep it as stocked as we can.”
Byars-Cobbs United Methodist Church installed its blessing box on June 11, aware of the need since the town's food bank closed almost three years ago. What surprised Pastor Garrett is how much money it takes to keep the new blessing box stocked with food and toiletries. While it may be the case at other churches, Garrett does not think his neighbors are taking more than they need.
“The need is so great that they don’t take just one or two items,” Garrett said. “I knew we needed something in this community, but I didn’t know the extent.”
Jerry Ferguson works at Town Square
Food Ministries in this 2018 photo from
'Washington County News.' Photo by
Carolyn R. Wilson (Used with permission)

Jerry Ferguson, a Byars-Cobbs member, is grieved by the need among food-insecure families but not surprised. For 25 years, he volunteered at Town Square Food Ministries, the Glade Spring food bank that served 185 local households each month.

When Ferguson had a stroke, he tried to get one of several nearby churches to run the food bank to keep it from closing.
“It hurt me that nobody would take it on. Nobody would step up,” says Ferguson, age 80. “There’s a lot of work in it, I understand. But it really did hurt me because we gave out a good box of food.”
Since the food bank closed in December 2020, Garrett is not sure how people have coped. Many residents of the low-income neighborhoods near downtown Glade Spring, where Byars-Cobb church is located, don’t have transportation, he said. The nearest food banks are Saltville (8 miles) and Abingdon (14 miles).
“If you drive through the town, you will see individuals and families walking to the stores because they don’t have vehicles,” says Elizabeth Belcher, Byars-Cobb member and a teacher at Meadowview Elementary School. “My husband Rick and I were working to fill the box one afternoon and a man walking by … stopped and told us how much he appreciated what we were doing and that he visited the box every week to get food and other needs.”
Both Garrett and Belcher spoke of a note recently left in the box that said, “If it hadn't been for your box, I would have starved.”
Church members in other areas said their blessing boxes also get depleted quickly, although in most cases, others from the church or community step in to help.
The blessing box at Centenary UMC
in Morristown, Tenn. (Submitted)

“We try to fill the box up once a day,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Hamilton, pastor of Mountain View United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee. “It’s hard, though. It’s usually gone in just a few hours with others coming throughout the day, looking for more.”
Most of the food comes from the congregation’s donations or from community members who stop by to fill Mountain View’s box, Hamilton said. “The need seems to be great in the community, with new cars showing up all the time.”
At both Hamilton’s church (Mountain View) and Sutherland’s churches (Ft. Gibson and St. Paul), the children in the congregation participate in food drives to help keep the blessing boxes stocked, the pastors said.
At McFerrin United Methodist Church in Church Hill, Tennessee, the Rev. Dave Poore says the blessing box gets stocked about four times a week.
“I know we probably have some that visit it almost every day,” Poore said. “We have folks from the church as well as in the community that help keep it stocked. This time of year, we have folks putting fresh vegetables from their gardens in the box.”
Tucker Griffin, grandson to Rev. Ken
Tucker, built a blessing box for Wears
Valley UMC for his Eagle Scout
project. (Submitted)

Because the cost of helping neighbors with accessible food and toiletries is so far only falling on a couple of families at Byars-Cobbs, Garrett said he is seeking help. He recently received donations from Beech Grove United Methodist Church and Emory United Methodist Church. He’s hoping to work with grocery stores and food nonprofits to help the hungry people he sees walking by the church and the hungry children that Belcher encounters at school.
Eventually, Garrett knows a food pantry needs to be recreated in his town of 1,500.
“I’m tired of seeing these people suffer,” he said. “As United Methodists, we are known to be out in the community, and it’s time we do something.”

To help Byars-Cobbs with food ministry, contact the Rev. Daniel Garrett at

Holston Conference includes member churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, with main offices in Alcoa, Tennessee. Sign up for a free email subscription to The Call newsletter.



annette july 2023.jpg
Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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