Almost 14 years ago, HopeCity began distributing food to residents in some of the most food-insecure neighborhoods of High Point, North Carolina. “It was just a couple of us passing out hot dogs and bottled water from our cars, then a pull-behind trailer,” reflected Pastor Scott Newton, HopeCity’s senior pastor. Eventually, a food truck operator in Boston, Massachusetts, heard about HopeCity’s work, and donated a food truck. “‘Just come out and pick it up,’ he said,” recalled Pastor Scott.
Since then, the food truck has blossomed into an innovation and social entrepreneurship case-study. Hope Food Co. — the name of the HopeCity food ministry — has given out over 19,000 meals through the food truck and has launched a coffee shop called “Given Coffee Co.,” which will soon be launching its own coffee truck in the High Point area. Both the coffee shop and the food truck operate on a “pay what you can” structure, meaning that guests may elect to pay what they can afford by donation; but if a guest is unable to spare money for food, they receive the meal or coffee for free.
This model is fully self-sustaining. “The church does not fund the free meals,” said Jamie Via, Hope Food executive director. “It’s all from the food truck coming to paid events, and people coming in and paying for their coffee. The food truck goes out to company lunches, weddings, markets and other food truck festivals … people in the community have loved the idea that they can partner with us, pay for meals, bless employees or guests at their event, and give to a really great cause that supports free meals in other venues.”
At every venue, Hope Food offers caring staff and volunteers who do their best to connect with guests — not just in serving great food but also in paying attention to their needs and stories.
Recently, a new volunteer was being trained to work with food truck guests. “I told her, ‘Come and observe,’ but right away, she was in action, not just observing,” recalls Jamie. The volunteer spoke Spanish and had a conversation for around 15 minutes with another Spanish-speaking guest.
That conversation brought up significant spiritual themes, and a few moments later, the new volunteer came to Jamie and said, “‘Could you help me? This lady wants to receive Christ.” As Jamie drew near to pray with the woman, she noticed something familiar about her. “Her daughter worked in our coffee shop, and was also at the event,” Jamie remembered. “So, I went and found the woman’s daughter, and said, ‘Your mom wants to receive Christ today; would you like to be part of it?’”
Overcoming her shock, the woman’s daughter accompanied Jamie, and both prayed with the woman, with the new volunteer translating into Spanish.
This moment was especially beautiful for all involved, but also indicative of HopeCity’s way of being present at Hope Food events. “We’ve tried just to make ourselves available,” said Jamie. “Not with the intent of preaching the gospel, or trying to get people saved, but making ourselves available to the prompting of the Spirit, and listening when God says, ‘This person needs a little encouragement, or I need to sit across the picnic table and listen to this person.’”
That quiet attentiveness results in connections that help carry Hope Food guests into the next moment, nourished not only by delicious food, but also by a sense that someone (a volunteer, church member or neighbor sitting across the picnic table from) sees that they are worthy of love and attention.
As Hope Food leadership considers how readers can partner with them, they ask for prayer over their next horizon, which includes early intervention: bringing meals to children and young families.
In addition, Pastor Scott invites local congregations to consider how they can build sustainable ways of making social change in their own community.
“Find the passionate, gifted people in your church, and dream up ideas that might help others. If it’s lawn-care, you can turn it into a kingdom-valued lawn care business. If it’s a car business, for every 10 cars you sell, you can give one to a family in need. This started with a dream; it’s slow, but when the Lord’s moving, we just pick up our feet and go with him. Anybody can do the same.”
Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of discipleship at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.