IT’S THAT TIME of year when for some of us, food starts appearing out of nowhere.
Fruitcakes left on the doorstep. A pile of powder–dusted cookies in thebreakroom. Fourteen kinds of cheese at the neighborhood open house, not including whatever is in those logs showered in chopped walnuts.
Yesterday I found myself running away from a nice lady in the hairnet handing out ham samples at Publix, only to be confronted by fudge at the dry cleaners. It’s hard to imagine that anyone, anywhere, could possibly be hungry when you’ve got people practically sticking candy canes down your pants at the bank.
Yet as we scarf those empty calories, we know there are those among us for whom basic nourishment seems impossible. We may not know them personally; maybe we do and they’re too proud to let us know it. But Rev. Carl Gilliard sees them every day.
“Things are so bad now for so many,” the good reverend tells me on a recent visit to the Savannah Feed the Hungry Life Center, the facility he runs on Augusta Road just over the Garden City border. “We’ve got so many new people coming in this month because of the changes made to the food stamps benefits, and they’re every race and religion and color and age. We know here that hunger has no boundaries.”
He’s speaking from experience. The former car salesman and his wife, Lashawnda, started SFH three years ago after clawing back from hard times themselves with their four daughters.
“I lost my job, and then we lost our house, then our car. We literally had two pieces of bread and piece of bologna at one point,” he recounts. “I now call it the best experience of my life, but I don’t want any family to have to go through that.”
Undaunted, the Gilliards began contacting local produce distributors to solicit donations of extra fruits and vegetables. Their efforts quickly blossomed into an operation that hosts monthly sit–down dinners and free clinics as well as gives away hundreds of bags of groceries twice a week.
The softspoken pastor claims no superpowers, but with not a penny of public funding has galvanized an impressively effective program: Thousands of clients. Hundreds of volunteers. Over forty local business partnerships. And rather than work in a different orbit than Savannah’s other service organizations, SFH often shares referrals with Second Harvest Food Bank and the Salvation Army.
“Everything seems to work together,” Rev. Gilliard shrugs. “For all of us, the goal is to serve, and there is no shortage of people in need.”
SFH is expecting 6000-7000 guests at their two free holiday dinners on Dec. 22 and 23 at the National Guard Armory, in Hinesville and Savannah respectively. Clothing, gift and toy giveaways will also bring comfort and smiles.
But one or two meals don’t make the dent in people’s hunger—it’s the work that’s done all year long to supplement the seniors who’s checks run short as their power bills go up, the single parents, the working poor, the families living out of hidden tent cities on the west side of town.
When I showed up at SFH’s cavernous warehouse last week, produce coordinator Mother Middleton was sorting cartons of fresh blackberries and beautiful bunches of beets while uniformed volunteers from Hunter Army Base’s BOSS program lifted crates of ivory cauliflower, bags of crisp collard greens and bunches of grapes onto tables. Rows of brown paper bags stood neatly lined up on pallets with whole grain breads and carrot tops peeking out, looking every inch like they belonged in the trunk of an Audi stationwagon leaving the parking lot of Fresh Market.
While Mother assures me that such a cornucopia doesn’t happen every single week, it’s clear SFH is not just feeding the hungry—they’re feeding them well, with dignity. And teaching them how to cook, if necessary: SFH also offers free cooking classes through UGA Cooperative Extension.
“We want to give people a hand up, not a handout,” explains Pastor Gilliard.
It’s clear there are more than bodies being nourished here. Pastor Gilliard reiterates several times during the afternoon that he wants those who come to the Life Center experience a “good feeling” so their faith is restored that life is good, no matter what. It’s an infectious vibe.
“People come here so worn down, so sad,” says front desk volunteer Gloria Zipperer, a friendly redhead who first came through the doors as a client. “I know how hard it is to come here, so my first step is to give everyone a hug.”
I get mine, and after so many days of too many sugary treats, my stomach finally feels settled. For me, the sweetest part of the holiday season is being reminded how once we have enough to eat, how little it takes to fill each other up.
For info and volunteer opportunities, call 912/349-0774 or go to savannahfeedthehungry.com