By Danielle Ray, Senior Reporter
Operation: Food is Love volunteers jubilantly marked one year of feeding the community on May 17 with a weekly meal distribution and then a celebration at coordinator Jennifer Scalise-Mullet’s Sterling home afterwards.
The large scale First Church in Sterling community outreach effort, which is open to anyone in area in need, has provided a staggering 22,000 meals throughout the pandemic to those in need as well as 3,363 meal kits last summer, over 2,000 grocery bags full of food, over 7,500 cans of veggies, over 100,000 non-perishable food items, and an unknown number of pounds of locally grown and donated produce, eggs, and orchard fruit.
“I have been so honored and humbled to lead this effort,” Scalise-Mullet said. “Food is Love changed the lives of food recipients – families, individuals, caregivers, and seniors. They have told us so in notes, letters, and spoken words.”
Some of the words of appreciation from recipients include “We had delicious, healthy meals a couple of nights a week,” and “I am doing better now.”
“A few said, ‘Now I want to give back’, one giving the program her stimulus check,” Scalise-Mullet said. “The gist of these messages was ‘You helped me make it through dark times.’ The needs met were not just for food. Some folks were obviously lonely and came to talk, others shared their exhaustion and dismay over working, parenting, and supervising remote school all at once and said this meal prepared for their family once a week helped them keep going.”
Scalise-Mullett estimates that the army of Food is Love volunteers have selflessly given nearly 4,000 combined hours between planning, organizing, prepping meals and grocery bags, distribution, delivery, making phone calls, and creating cards, pictures, and notes.
“We’ve had countless volunteers, we couldn’t have done this without them,” she said. “They are the heart of this operation and I know without their support we never would have made it this far. The celebration was for them, for all of them.”
In addition, the greater community as a whole has rallied around the effort, with people, businesses and groups from town and all over the region stepping up to give of their time, donate food, and more.
“The outpouring of non-perishable goods and money and notes of encouragement to be put in food bags from people all around greater Sterling all demonstrated the gift was to the givers,” Scalise-Mullett said. “Food is Love became a phenomenon, the biggest outreach effort our church has ever seen. The volunteers said that their commitment, whether a few isolated times or weekly for almost a year, gave purpose to their now fragile lives during the pandemic, that their efforts gave them a sense of a little control in this unknown time. They too needed a way to give.”
The weekly meals distribution will continue on Mondays through June and this summer will go down to the first and third Mondays beginning in July. In October First Church in Sterling community lunches will resume, and in addition Food is Love will do a food distribution once a month on the third Monday.
“The Food is Love team will partner with the Sterling Senior Center to support current meal recipients who want assistance with accessing community resources, with the team making that assistance known to the community,” Scalise-Mullett said. “And when team members discover local individuals or families in crisis, we will reach out with meals and support. It’s important to continue to serve our community. We have discovered need and we want to continue to meet this need. We are determined to do so as long as we can.”
Scalise-Mullet said the one-year celebration at her home following the meal distribution “was a culmination of joy, joy that we achieved 52 weeks in rain, snow, sleet, very hot and very cold weather conditions. We smiled even under our masks, we cried with our recipients, and we have created lifelong friendships and a connection during this time that none of us expected. This was an experience like no other.”
Scalise-Mullet said she never imagined Food is Love would evolve into what it is today, one year later – a much-needed life raft for community members and the opportunity for people to give back.
“I never thought this program would be the phenomenon it has become,” she said. “I was determined to feed those who needed a meal during the pandemic. I was determined to hand out non-perishable goods to help people who needed it. I was so focused on the work that I didn’t even expect the magic every Monday has given to me.
“I didn’t expect to build the relationships and feel like our recipients are family,” Scalise-Mullett continued. “I know how many meals people need just by recognizing their cars. I know their pets’ names. I know if they have an ill family member. I know their children and compliment their masks and ask about school. We are all a family. It truly is magic. It’s everything. Truly.”