Redeeming My Grocery Routine to Feed Those Who Are Hungry

Of all the chores, I loathe grocery shopping the most. There are just so many steps involved—making a list (which involves a check of the fridge, the cabinets, and the calendar), pushing a heavy cart up and down aisles (and inevitably, all the way back to the produce section from the freezer aisle when I realize I forgot onions), then coming home and putting everything away (including washing the grapes and taking various snack foods out of their boxes to go into the plastic bins in our cabinets). It’s sad how often I come home from grocery shopping late in the afternoon, and end up ordering pizza for dinner—despite the full refrigerator—because I’m so wiped out from getting the groceries that I no longer have energy to cook any of them. And of course, every shopping trip ends with the realization, as I unpack the last bag, that I forgot something vital.

Preoccupied with how much I hate grocery shopping and the frustrations of feeding three kids who each have their own strong and frequently voiced opinions on what foods they do and don’t like, I can forget what a profound luxury it is to have enough food to feed my family, all the time.

New York Times article on the people affected by cuts to the federal food stamps program left me convicted—that’s the only word that feels right—of my responsibility to help those who loathe grocery shopping not merely because it’s time-consuming and tiring, but because they cannot afford enough food to feed themselves or their children.

The budget cuts mean that individuals and families receiving food stamps are getting $10, $20, $30 less per month. Such amounts seem modest when I compare them with my monthly grocery expenses, but given that many food stamp recipients are already on fixed incomes from Social Security or disability payments, or work for low hourly wages, those amounts equal a significant percentage of families’ monthly food bills. The Times interviewed one man who, as of last week, only had $5 worth of food stamps left for the month, and a mother who buys her daughter’s favorite foods and forgoes her own because, she said, as an adult she can handle hunger better than her daughter can. 

My Episcopal church has made feeding programs a cornerstone of our outreach efforts, and for good reason. The consequences of never having enough to eat, or never having enough healthy food to eat, go beyond hunger pangs to affect mood, energy, and long-term physical and mental health. Preparing and sharing meals are also fundamental activities that bind people together in families and communities. No wonder so many Biblical stories have food at their center—God giving the Israelites manna in the wilderness, the loaves and fishes, the last supper, and Jesus eating a breakfast of fish on the beach with his friends after his resurrection.

I began writing and fleshing out this post before hearing my rector’s sermon on Sunday, in which he focused on our feeding ministries and how we might expand and deepen them. He asked us to consider how much we could do in our local community if everyone who worships at St. James’s brought a few cans or boxes of food with us every Sunday to donate to our local food pantry. (For a couple of years, we have stationed a red wagon in the church entrance where parishioners can leave nonperishable food to be delivered to the pantry.) That Bob preached that sermon the same weekend I planned to write this post (originally published on my church blog) encouraging a deeper commitment to those who are hungry, particularly those for whom federal food stamp cuts are a huge and daily concern, makes me think that our message is ultimately coming from someone other than me and him.

After reading the Times article, I made a decision. I may loathe grocery shopping, but I must do it. And as long as I’m doing it, I will commit to buying at least one thing for the food pantry every time I buy food for my own family. If I pick up a box of Honey Nut Cheerios for my family, I’ll pick up a second for the food pantry. If pasta sauce is on sale this week but I don’t need any, I’ll buy a few jars for someone else. Until now, I’ve been haphazard in my food donations. I walk into the church cloister, see the wagon waiting to receive food donations, and think, “Oh yeah, I need to do that.” Now, I’m going to actually do it. Every time I shop.

Besides giving to a food pantry, we can help feed our neighbors by donating food to local charities with feeding programs (including those offering Thanksgiving fixings to people who can’t afford to buy it all), or giving money to food banks where nonprofits can buy donated food dirt cheap. Whatever we do, I think it’s important that our efforts be consistent and regular. Years ago, I worked for an Episcopal social service agency in D.C. with a food pantry. We got plenty of food during the food-focused holiday season. But come March, and especially come July, our shelves were far emptier. Seasonal dishes may be lighter and healthier in the summer compared with the holidays, but empty bellies are just as painful.

The miracle of the loaves and fishes is sometimes interpreted as a parable about sharing. Jesus didn’t perform a miracle—some kind of magic trick— to allow two fish and five loaves to feed thousands. The miracle was that, when the gathered multitudes saw a boy offer his meager provisions willingly to Jesus and his friends, others opened their sacks and pouches to see what bits of sustenance they too might share. When everyone gave something, even just a little, the crowd had enough to feed everyone, with leftovers.

If we all committed to remembering hungry people every time we buy groceries for our families, write our monthly checks to charities, or tell our elected representatives what we see as budgetary priorities, how might we see the miracle of the loaves and fishes embodied right in our local communities? How might we ease the burden of those trying to feed themselves and their families on dwindling food stamps? On Sunday, as we listened to Bob preach, my husband Daniel leaned over and said, “I wonder what would happen if we put larger food collection bins in the cloister. Would people fill them?” I think the answer could be yes.

That Darn Camel: My Struggle with Tithing
Rethinking Margaret Sanger, Contraception, & How We are All a Moral “Mixed Bag”
That Darn Camel: Choosing Where to Give (and a Plug for the World Food Program)
Why “What Would Jesus Do?” Isn’t Exactly the Right Question
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Brad Raley

    I appreciate the sentiment of this post very much, but would point out that you will do more for your local foodbank by donating money rather than food. They can buy the food cheaper than you can.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Yes, you are right that for food banks, cash goes much further. The food I donate goes directly to a town food pantry, but I give cash to our local food bank, from which soup kitchens and other nonprofits can purchase very inexpensive food. Excellent point. Thanks.

      • Brad Raley

        As is your own point. I was not thinking of the fact that local food pantries might use food from both food banks and from donations, and probably don’t have the same purchasing power as the food banks do. Thanks.

  • Tim

    Wonderful, Ellen. (And there must be something going on with this topic because I’ve got a post on hungry people coming up on Thursday.) I like your idea of making it a part of the shopping trip, and your husband’s question about larger food bins. Fill ‘er up!
    P.S. On the loaves and fishes miracle, I know people try to rationalize it as an object lesson in sharing our resources, but Jesus put that to rest in Matthew 16:8-10. He wasn’t dealing with getting someone to share, there. He was talking to people who had not a single crumb between them to share and assuring them that getting something to eat was not a problem for him. Jesus actually multiplied loaves and fish. Any other reading of the text is just wishful thinking.

    • JenellYB

      Tim, the question is, just what was Jesus’ message, what was He teaching or demonstrating of value to us, if it were, as written, a miracle, making the 5 loaves and 2 fish feed thousands? What was the point? Just to show those people a miracle on that particular occasion? That doesn’t seem consistent with most of what He did, which demonstrated something relevant and important to his disciples, and us. As for showing them having no food was not a problem, he could make some appear, that isn’t something He has done in other contexts, as for hungry people since then, even as believers.

      • Tim

        I think the question, Jenell, really is: what does the text most strongly suggest? The language suggests a miraculous multiplying of fish and bread, not just prompting people to share what they had already brought with them