WAKE COUNTY — When Patricia Hartley and Mary Jo Bukowski spread peanut butter and jelly onto 25 sandwiches in 2005, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
The sandwiches were the main course of the first 25 free bag lunches distributed to the hungry by the nonprofit organization now known as the Brown Bag Ministry. Today, the ministry spreads more than 100 times that many bag lunches across several Triangle locations each week, and on Saturday it celebrated handing off its 500,000th meal.
The way the amount of food has multiplied over the years sounds like an account straight out of the Bible, and Hartley, who with Bukowski founded the Brown Bag Ministry, says it should.
“We hoped to fulfill Christ’s words in the Gospel to feed the hungry,” she said. “As God reveals the need to us, he always provides the food to us needed to meet that need.”
The ministry began in the kitchen of Hartley’s Youngsville home, but space became an issue after several months passed and the volume rose to 125 bag lunches. The program then found a home at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Apex, where Bukowski was a member.
Four other Triangle churches have become assembly stations for the bag lunches since that time. The five hubs of the ministry now produce a combined 2,900 bag lunches that are dispersed each Saturday in Durham, Raleigh, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon.
Feeding those in need
St. Andrew pieces together about 1,250 of the meals, which consist of a sandwich and a few sides. The Apex church distributes 180 of its bag lunches at Moore Square, the original location served by the ministry. The remainder of its meals are dished out in Durham and Raleigh and any remaining bags are taken to the South Wilmington Street Center, the county’s homeless shelter for men.
In the three years St. Eugene Catholic Church has been involved in the Brown Bag Ministry, its operation has grown from 250 to about 1,000 bag lunches distributed each Saturday. Four hundred of the bag lunches prepared at the Wendell church are taken to Zebulon United Methodist Church, where church volunteers man a booth and operate the equivalent of a drive-through.
As the ministry celebrated the half-million mark Saturday, St. Eugene hit the 100,000 bag lunch milestone. Tom Falvey, the coordinator of St. Eugene’s outfit, said crossing that threshold is exciting but that a greater need still exists.
“If we made 1 million bag lunches, we still wouldn’t be helping enough,” Falvey said. “There’s still a greater need in eastern Wake County.
“We’re still trying to see how we can meet the needs for kids in school who have nothing to eat during the week. Every Saturday, the kids come running to us out of their apartments smiling.”
Some eastern Wake families have become dependent on the local branch of the ministry, Falvey says.
“I’d say that makes it pretty important,” he said. “They didn’t have someone bringing them a meal before three years ago when we started this out here.”
St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Wake Forest – where Hartley is a member – produces about 350 additional bag lunches, and St. Francis of Assisi Church in North Raleigh produces about 100. St. Philip Lutheran Church, a North Raleigh church that joined the ministry a few months ago, started at a volume of 200 bag lunches.
Supporting the cause
The ministry functions on donations of food and money. Some of the food is purchased from the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, and some comes free from the food bank.
Other donations come in the form of volunteerism. Local YMCAs have been instrumental in providing helpers to help prepare and distribute the bag lunches – as have other area churches, youth sports teams and Scout troops.
For an initiative that started in the comfort of her own home, Hartley says it is overwhelming to think of how the ministry has grown.
“It’s very humbling to think 25 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, soda and chips and a piece of fruit is now in five different locations and is in the thousands every weekend,” she said. “We were just trying to meet the need, which was much larger than we ever anticipated.
“My hope is we can always answer that call and feed those who are brought to us.”