'Pay what you can': Pittsboro church supports the community with subsidized meals, front porch food pantry

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PITTSBORO — Just off Jones Ferry Road along the outskirts of Pittsboro, a Mexican food truck served dinner right outside Cedar Grove United Methodist Church’s front porch last Thursday as the setting sun filtered through the trees.

A small group of people, each of them masked, stood outside the food truck’s window. Some studied the menu printed to the window’s left; others ordered food to-go. On any other day, arroz con pollo or a fajita quesadilla might cost $10, but that Thursday?

It was whatever you could pay.

“We subsidize the meal,” said Danny Berrier, who’s pastored Cedar Grove UMC for five years. “So if someone comes in and says they can’t afford a meal, we as the church family will pay for that from some of the gifts that were given to our church.”

Back in August, Cedar Grove UMC partnered with Ta Contento, a Mexican food truck based in Chapel Hill, to provide free or discounted monthly meals to the community, especially those laid low financially by the pandemic. The church holds the event every second Thursday of each month between 4 and 7 p.m. The event last Thursday, Jan. 14, was their sixth monthly event, and they will hold their next one on Feb. 11.

“I remember the first time we did this,” Berrier said. “Some folks followed the food truck, obviously, because they know about Ta Contento … so they came to our church because of them, and so, it’s been a good relationship between the two groups.”

Nora Anaya, a Bolivian immigrant, owns and operates Ta Contento — Spanish for “Be happy” — with her husband, Hans, a Mexican native. After the pandemic hit, she said Ta Contento had shifted to serving neighborhoods across Orange and Chatham counties. One of Cedar Grove’s members, Amy Winn — Anaya’s neighbor — approached her about partnering with the church to provide subsidized meals to the community last summer.

On average, Anaya estimated they serve about 80 people per event, though she said it always depends. About half usually pay the meal’s full price, usually about $10, she said, while the other half “pay what they can.”

“And sometimes they don’t pay anything at all,” she said, “but we just provide the food. … It’s just beautiful to be able to serve. That is a goal for everybody here — to be able to serve and feed people.”

As part of that, she said Ta Contento doesn’t charge the church “time,” which most food trucks charge venue organizers “just to show up.” It’s usually a fee between $400 and $500 that helps a food truck cover its expenses.

“We have stuff that we need to pay,” Anaya said, “so sometimes I’d say if we don’t achieve this amount of sales, we charge a little bit just to cover and pay the salaries basically. But in this specific event, we never charge anything at all. That’s the way that we can try to help.”

“That’s their gift to us,” added Berrier, “and it allows us to be generous as a church to the community.”

'We want to help’

Cedar Grove UMC’s efforts to serve a hurting community don’t end there. In fact, Berrier said the partnership with Ta Contento evolved out of a wider feeding initiative that traces its roots all the way back to late March and COVID-19.

A couple of Sundays after Berrier closed the church, a church member, Lynn Carter, approached him and suggested that the church turn its front porch into a food pantry.

“She basically approached me and said, ‘Pastor Danny, you know, I feel my tithes, my regular contribution, instead of — no offense — going to the church right now should go help families in our community,’” he said. “And so she had the idea, ‘Why don’t we just buy some food and put it on the porch?’”

After Berrier expressed his support, Carter and her son, Cass Somersette, repurposed their church tithes to buy some groceries, mostly canned products, and then stored them on the church’s front porch.

“The devil was saying, ‘Oh, you can do this. You can do that with that,’ so that money was burning a hole in our pockets,” Carter said. “And I said, ‘Son, we’re gonna have to do something with this money.’”

After setting up the porch, Carter and Somersette looked to advertise it to everyone driving by the church. The only problem? It had been raining.

“I said, ‘Son, we’ve got to have something that will repel this water,’” Carter said, and then added with a laugh, “So we went and got a shower curtain.”

On the curtain, they wrote, “Church porch. Take what you need,” in big, block letters. Soonafter, they draped it over the church’s welcome sign near the road.

“It was just a rag-tag, kind of shoestring stuck together kind of thing,” she said, laughing.

Other church members quickly rallied behind the idea, and soon after a small church mobilized to make a big splash. Cedar Grove has 65 people on their membership rolls, Berrier said, but only about 20 or so regularly attend, even before COVID-19 arrived.

“And so, you know, part of the challenge, then, is how with 20 people do we really grow and connect with our community?” Berrier said. “… We weren’t quite sure how we would do some of the things, but when the inspiration came to Lynn, and others in the church adopted it, it’s just taken off since then.”

In late summer, another member of the church, Margaret Lawless, also spearheaded another feeding program that preceded the church’s partnership with Ta Contento — take-home meal kits. Her idea, Berrier said, was to assemble a kit with everything families would need to cook a meal without shopping — and which parents could pick up on the way home from work. Since starting, the church has been assembling about six different kits, including pizza and pasta kits.

“Margaret really had that inspiration,” Berrier said, “and then we rallied behind her organization skills for that.”

But as Berrier and others repeatedly emphasized, Cedar Grove received a lot of help from the community — and their three-pronged feeding initiative wouldn’t have been possible without it.

“Once (the front porch pantry) got up there, people just started stopping by and picking up items and then also stopping by and leaving items,” Berrier said. “And that’s been the blessing that I’ve seen. The community around here has really adopted this ministry of this church.”

Over three shelves’ worth of food — canned goods, bread, rice, and even two boxes of cereal — sat last Thursday in the left corner of the church’s front porch. Just above the food, church members had taped a homemade sign to the window, asking people only to take what they need in both English and Spanish. To the right sat a stack of miniature bibles, also both in English and Spanish. “Let the literature carry the message, too,” read the stand that displayed them.

“There was such an outpouring from everybody in this community,” Carter said, adding, “We have people wanting to meet us and (asking) ‘What do we need?’ It was just wonderful. So it just kind of warmed people’s hearts, and they said, ‘Yes, we want to help,’ and so people from all over this community have come and joined in and helped.”

The Inter-Faith Council (IFC) in Chapel Hill donates food, including fresh fruit, to the church’s front porch pantry. A man down the road donates fresh eggs; another person dropped off 12 bags of food around Christmas time. Jaime Detzi, from the Chatham Education Foundation, donated a box of children’s books, and the Chatham Health Alliance contributed vaccine information and other supplies, including homemade and commercial cloth masks, that the church then distributed out.

The church has received dozens of financial contributions, too, especially during its Thursday  dinners. Berrier said they usually receive over $100 in donations from the community, though it can range from “as low as maybe $40 to as high as $300.” Last Thursday, they received about $120.

“It all depends on the crowd. We just don’t know who’s coming that night,” Berrier said, adding, “There’s a couple ladies I know who come every week and say, ‘Well, here’s $100,’ just to support the ministry. I don’t know if they ever get any food or not, but they give us money so we can do this.”

He’d often find checks in the mailbox or in the front porch’s donation box for “whatever you can use it for,” too. Thanks to community support, their front porch pantry has never run out of food.

“It’s just been a constant thing,” he said. “... We may be short of certain items at different times, but we’ve not run out of anything.”

The church’s efforts particularly mean a lot to Carrboro resident Robbin Moore, who’s been part of the church for about a year. The pandemic cut her hours in half, from eight to four, and the church stepped in to help alleviate her financial burden.

“They bought my (four) grandkids a whole Christmas, presents all around my Christmas tree from this church,” she said. “I have a 6-month old grandbaby (who needs) Pampers, milk, food, clothes. Oh my God, I was just so overwhelmed. This is a beautiful church.”

She has attended nearly every — if not every — “Pay What You Can” event, which often provides her dinner before she goes to work.

“They always, like, want to give something, and it’s so sweet,” she said. “You know, you don’t have too many people who just want to give you things, just give it to you. Most people who give you something (say), ‘Oh, don’t forget, I gave you this. I did this for you.’ No, you don’t hear anything back (from Cedar Grove). You just get in and get help. That’s nice.”

Berrier said the church plans to continue feeding and providing for those in need as long as they can — and perhaps even beyond COVID-19.

“As long as we can continue to financially support it, I think we’ll keep doing it,” he said. “... I feel like God’s led us to this, and we continue to do what he’s leading us to do.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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