In a recent case federal officials threatened to pull federal Emergency Food Assistance Program funding from Community Provisions of Jackson County, a food pantry in southern Indiana, if volunteers continued to offer prayer to recipients.
The two parties later reached an agreement that Community Provisions could continue to offer prayer, but only after recipients receive food.
Norman Stafford of Helping Neighbors Inter-Faith Food Pantry in Jonesboro relies on donations from businesses and federal funding when it is available to serve what he said is a huge need in Region 8. "I can tell you what happened last Monday, from 10 to 12, we had 50 households come in, some with one person some with seven or eight."
Helping Neighbors is a network of 23 churches and one synagogue. Board president Stafford said unlike many faith-based food pantries, his organization does not have to decide if federal funding trumps spiritual guidance because the Helping Neighbors volunteers do not ask people about their faith. "We want to give them food. We don't proselytize in any way. We come from various faith backgrounds, but that isn't the important part here."
Stafford believes the possibility of assuming that food only comes with faith talk is too great for people who are down on their luck. "I don't want to see it mixed because if people are hungry they'll say or agree to almost anything. I would."
First Assembly of God senior pastor Matt Smith said his church launched a food pantry in 2009 because they also want to help people in a practical way.
"It finally was able to materialize with leadership and resources in the spring of 2009, and it was very timely considering the situation that our nation was finding itself in economically," Smith said. "Last year we averaged something over 605 families we serviced every month, and this year I think we're around 500 so far per month."
First Assembly members involved with the church food pantry made a decision not to apply for federal funding because they believe the faith factor ranks too high on the list of what people need not to offer it. The church operates the food pantry through donations from church members, retailers and purchases from the Northeast Arkansas Food Bank. "We're not at all interested in government funding because we don't want any kind of influence upon the way that we minister and the way that we work," Smith said.
"As a church we feel like that the Gospel is tied to every ministry, every outreach, and every kind of service that we do. So, it would be inappropriate for us to put ourselves in that position to where we were not able or restricted from presenting the Gospel, offering prayer to people, and spiritual resources."
Pastor Smith said people are not required to accept any of the resources from the church in order to have to receive assistance, but his church will not sacrifice what they believe is the foundation for well-being. "What makes us successful in what we're able to do, well, it is the spiritual component."
"They can walk in and fill out the paper work, and sit there and have no spiritual interest whatsoever, and receive their food and go on their way."