Florida Baptist catalyst addresses growing hunger crisis

Rising food insecurity in the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic is no surprise to Jeffery Singletary. On his latest Feeding the Five Thousand Crusade to the Caribbean, the Florida Baptist leader sensed that the hunger he’s fought there since 2017 was headed to the U.S.

“The Lord had just laid on my heart about 2020,” said Singletary, a Florida Baptist Convention regional catalyst. “I didn’t know the context of this [the pandemic], but it was in my spirit that we’re on the precipice of a national crisis.”

More than 50 million Americans are expected to go hungry this year amid the pandemic, National Geographic reported in December, based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the nonprofit Feeding America. The predicted 50.4 million for 2020 is up from 35.2 million in 2019, and includes 17 million children. A 2020 nationwide food insecurity rate of 16 percent is anticipated to be 23 percent among children.

In South Carolina, many food banks across the state are experiencing food shortages as the numbers of those needing assistance has increased and the coronavirus has had an impact on the supply chains for local grocery stores as well as the meat and poultry industries, according to news reports. Since the outbreak, some grocery stores have had issues keeping shelves stocked, and little has been left over to donate to pantries.

As Southern Baptist churches work with the USDA and various nonprofit groups to address hunger, Singletary has used his contacts through the Florida Baptist Convention, the Huddle Touch sports ministry he founded, and the Black Southern Baptist Denominational Servants Network he leads to mobilize help for the needy.

When the pandemic began in March, Singletary said he was already praying for a plan. He asked the Lord to open opportunities for food distribution across the state.

Florida government leaders first contacted the Florida Baptist Convention in March to distribute snack boxes to Baptist churches. Later that month, Singletary received word that a Georgia philanthropist was donating $3 million to help farmers mobilize their goods, as regular commercial avenues were stymied by the pandemic. Singletary initially agreed to distribute 2,000 food boxes a day in central Florida, but he said the scope changed within weeks as the program morphed into the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program.

Singletary mobilized a network of 2,800 food distribution sites among Florida Baptist churches, 2,000 sites through the Huddle Touch network and others through the Black Southern Baptist Denominational Servants Network. Through Farmers to Families, Singletary helped distribute 50 to 75 trucks full of food a week, distributing $28 million worth of food within six months.

“I just began to reach out to the church of Jesus Christ,” Singletary said, and the food distribution program energized congregations that were suffering during the pandemic’s shutdown.

“From Pensacola to Key West, we began to see an incredible movement of churches being at the apex of their community. If you would come to their campus, you would see (food distribution) lines for hours — people coming, and churches loving on their neighbors, ministering to them.”

More than 8.5 million food boxes have been distributed in Florida alone, and another 1.5 million in Georgia, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Virginia and the Virgin Islands, Singletary said of the distribution network he helped mobilize from Florida. Churches have recorded between 1,500 and 2,000 decisions for Christ in the process.

“It’s been a tremendous blessing to pastors and to the churches that have been able to serve their community in ways that had not been open,” Singletary said.

“This hunger crisis is different than anything we’ve experienced before in my lifetime,” he said. “Normally when we have food giveaways, the predictable are in the lines. These lines have been unpredictable. People today are hurting who’ve never hurt before. People today who are in lines have never been in line before, from Lexus to Mercedes (drivers), you name it. … It spans the gamut, of the stories people in line crying … that they have to be here.”

— Diana Chandler is senior writer at Baptist Press.