The Little Engine That Could
“If you need to get something done, ask a busy person,” the old adage goes.
Often the most active church members are also active in community organizations. Central United Methodist Church in Webb City has taken advantage of the situation of having members in dual-roles by assisting other community organizations with goals similar to the church.
This is the third year that children 18 and under have been served free nutritious meals from late May through mid-August at the Webb City Farmers Market. Central member Eileen Nichols is director of the farmers market. The summer meals are paid for through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services program and administered by the Missouri Department of Health. All of the produce served at the weekly meals are provided by local growers.
Nichols said the free meals wouldn’t have happened if the market hadn’t found a willing partner to prepare and serve the meals. That partner, she said, turned out to be a local church looking for a way to return a favor. Central had been given a double convection oven from a grant through the Missouri United Methodist Foundation for its church kitchen, and members were looking for a way to put it to good use. Clint Lambeth, pastor of Central, said, “Our members like to volunteer in the community. The market was able to find a willing team to work with, and the program just took off.”
The meal was prepared in the church’s inspected kitchen, and church members handled the paperwork, purchasing, payroll, recruiting, scheduling and training of volunteers. Since the meal first began in 2015, the preparation of the meal has outgrown the church kitchen. The meals are now prepared at the kitchen at the farmers market by an employee and assistant who oversee the preparation of the meals. When the program was first proposed in Webb City the hope was that 75 meals would be served, but on that first night 90 meals were served. When the program ended the first year, they had served an average of 88 children every Tuesday evening.
The program now serves meals three times a week: Tuesday nights, Thursday lunch and Saturdays for breakfast and lunch all summer. The Webb City Farmers Market served its last free children’s meal for the 2018 season on August 14, making a total of 4,883 meals served to the children in the area. Central is still very instrumental in partnering with this program as they have several volunteers who serve the meals to the children.
In conjunction with the meal program, the church has partnered with community organizations in providing a literacy education and encouragement. For this they have access to one special incentive that few communities have: a train.
Clickety Clack Reading Down the Track is a program where kids climb aboard the Webb City historic streetcar No. 60 train for a ride around King Jack Park while reading a children’s book. The reading train runs every third Saturday of the month, spring through fall. Families are invited to listen to a story and enjoy the ride. People reserved tickets in advance at the farmers market or through Eventbrite.com. The ride follows a loop around the park and takes about 15 minutes.
Clickety Clack Reading Down the Track program is hosted by Friends of the Library Webb City and the Webb City Farmers Market. This program was created to try a different approach to get kids interested in reading. Central United Methodist Church members volunteer by reading to the children, helping the children make crafts at the depot and by donating monetary gifts for the purchase of books that are given to the train riders.
Vacation Bible School kids from Central United Methodist Church and Peace Lutheran Church went to the market for a healthy free lunch and presented the Webb City Farmers Market with a check for $700 that they raised for the market’s W.I.C. (Women, Infants and Children) coupon program. W.I.C. families can bring their folders to the information table at the market once per week to receive two $5 coupons good that day for uncut fruits and vegetables, meat, and eggs. The donation helps fund this program for low income young families to ensure their children have strong healthy bodies. The program will continue until funds are depleted.
The church watches for other opportunities for community engagement. Lambeth was walking on vacant property owned by the church and thought “this could be used for something other than an empty lot.” That lot, on the northeast corner of Pennsylvania and First streets, is now entering its third season as a community garden. Lambeth had the soil tested at a University Extension office and found it had high levels of lead, so he opted to make raised beds (filled with lead-free soil) out of salvaged garage doors and dug a new water line for the lot.
In the first year, about 15 members of the church and a few members of the community were active in the garden. Lambeth would like many more, especially in that neighborhood, to take advantage of the opportunity. He has noticed a lot of kids, which leads him to believe there are “so many people who could benefit from a garden.” In addition to its obvious purpose to grow food, he says he sees the community garden as a gathering place. “It seems harder and harder to find a place where everyone can come together.”