WATERFORD — Twice a month dozens of people, from the working poor and single moms to seniors struggling on Social Security and men and women who've been laid off, gather at Community Baptist Church for homegrown food and down-home hospitality.
They show up on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month for the church's food pantry. They get the usual staples — canned goods and boxed food — but a lot more.
The church supplements the processed food with tomatoes, squash, zucchini, bell peppers, onions and other vegetables grown in church members' gardens and in a community garden tended by church members in its grow-a-row program.
"We were concerned that all we were offering people was processed food, processed food and processed food," church member Bill Richards said. "We knew we could do better."
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The food pantry typically helps 60 to 70 families on a Tuesday, said church member Ron Kimberling, who runs it with his wife, Jean.
Jean Kimberling said those families represent more than 300 people who live in the small communities of Waterford and Hickman. She said many of the families the church helps have extended family members, such as grandparents and cousins, living with them.
More than 80 families were helped Tuesday.
"It's good," Waterford resident Leticia Escobar said Tuesday as she waited in line for vegetables picked that day. She's a widow and makes ends meet on $800 a month from Social Security. "It's not enough. I need help."
People start showing up 90 minutes before the food is given out. They sit at tables in the fellowship hall and visit with one another and munch on snacks provided by the church.
On Tuesday, the snacks included homemade zucchini bread, strawberry lemonade, slices of watermelon and canteloupe, and brownies for the kids.
As their parents talked, the kids were busy with coloring and puzzle books and arts and crafts. The church also put out prayer cards for people to write down their concerns.
They pray for continued sobriety, a fast recovery from an illness, finding a job, paying bills and family members who are losing their homes.
Church members started the grow-a-row and hospitality program last year to augment the food pantry program. (It's called grow a row to let participants know their help can be as limited as that — growing one row of vegetables.)
Richards said the church wanted to give the people it feeds more nutritious food and to get to know them as people.
Church members running the food pantry said it felt "like they were just moving food and didn't know the people," he said.
Richards said the program is a tangible way for church members to live out Jesus Christ's teachings of taking care of one another.
"We have been given the opportunity to be Christ to our community," he said. "It's about living out our love."
He said that has been humbling as he and others have learned of the hardships faced by those they help and the strength and courage they bring to their lives.
Mike Mallory, chief executive officer of Second Harvest Food Bank in Manteca, said he doesn't know of other churches that are growing fruits and vegetables along with their food programs.
"This is very new," he said. "I think it's in its infancy stage."
Second Harvest supplies food to 220 sites in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and five foothill counties, including Community Baptist Church's food pantry.
But Mallory said providing people with more fresh fruits and vegetables has taken root in the past decade among the big food banks in the state.
He said food banks in San Jose, Los Angeles and other big California cities distribute fresh fruits and vegetables to nearly all of the food pantries they serve, along with such staples as rice and cereal.
Second Harvest in Manteca distributes fresh produce to 30 percent to 40 percent of its clients, Mallory said, and is working on increasing that to at least 50 percent within two years.
Some area food pantries don't have refrigeration to keep fruits and vegetables fresh or worry that their clients may not know what to do with the food. Second Harvest is addressing the second concern by providing food pantries with recipes and nutritional information for their clients.
"When we get this going, you will see people changing," Mallory said. "We have an obesity problem in this society — weight problems and health problems. If we can get to 50 percent, it will make a difference."
Community Baptist Church feeds other hungers.
Waterford resident Phillip Onate, 52, showed up Tuesday with his former wife and a neighbor. He's been coming to the program for about two months.
Onate, who is out of work and has diabetes and high blood pressure, said he's "kind of a keep-to-myself person" but said he feels welcome at the church.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2316.