SOUDERTON — When the coronavirus-related shutdowns began in March and Emmanuel Lutheran Church started its free meal distribution, there was no expectation that it would still be going on more than four months later.

“This is looking less like it's gonna be solely an emergency program and much more of an ongoing ministry,” Pastor John Heidgerd said in a telephone interview the day after passing 25,000 meals distributed.

“I thought maybe a couple of months, but who knew how long this pandemic was going to affect us back in March. Now it's really a long curve before we're going to get back to any kind of a normal,” he said.

The church had just gotten word that it was receiving a state grant for a new commercial refrigerator to be used for the food distributions, he said.

“In applying for that grant, I had to say we were gonna do this for three years,” Heidgerd said, “and I don't think that's too far of a reach at this point.”

When the meal distribution program began, the church had two household refrigerators, he said. Now it has those two, two more that were donated by a community member, a large stand-up freezer and the commercial refrigerator that was expected to be received and up and running in the next few weeks, he said.

“We really have expanded our capacity for fresh foods and vegetables and dairy products and that just helps make the program a whole lot healthier for the people that come,” Heidgerd said.

With the addition of the commercial refrigerator, the program will be able to accept larger donations of fresh food items that it would otherwise have had to turn down because of not having the storage space, he said.

The free meals can be picked up 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays at the rear entrance of the church on W. Broad Street in Souderton.

“No questions asked. If you tell us you're hungry, you get a meal,” Heidgerd said.

The number of meals distributed decreased slightly over the past few months, but with the additional $600 a week unemployment compensation ending the end of July, might begin increasing, he said.

“It's about 180 meals a day right now on the average, Saturday being a much bigger day than the others,” he said. “We rarely go below a hundred.”

The Saturday distributions often include doubling up on the meals since there is not a Sunday distribution, he said. Bulk distributions of fruits, vegetables or meats also are most often done on Saturdays, he said.

Five or six volunteers are needed for each day's distribution, he said.

“We've started to structure this much more for a long-term operation. We have volunteer day captains that take one day a week and it's their responsibility to operate the program, make sure we open, we close, and all the things in between,” Heidgerd said.

Persons wishing to volunteer can do so at https://www.signupgenius.com/go/20f0949aaab2eaaff2-emmanuel.

The 25,000 meal mark was hit on July 30.

“The program has just been amazing,” Heidgerd said.

“Once we started putting ourselves out there, people started showing up with offers and opportunities to get more food,” he said. “We've just been blessed by so many different partnerships that have come up.”

A list of partnering businesses or organizations includes The Broad Street Grind, Blessings of Hope Food Bank, Garden of Health Food Bank, Keystone Opportunity Center, St. Maria Goretti Church, Giant Food Markets, Hatfield Meats/Clemens Food Group, Leidy's Meats, PA. Department of Environmental Protection, FEMA/US National Guard, Southeastern PA Synod/ELCA, Wawa Stores, Welcome Bread, Derstine's Foods, Indian Valley Boy's and Girls Club, Manna on Main, Pennridge FISH, Souderton Police Department and Liberty Lutheran Services.

In addition, volunteers from a group of churches come each Monday to make 300 to 400 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Heidgerd said.

“We've also raised $25,000 in this time to support this program,” Heidgerd said.

Donations may be made by clicking on the electronic giving button at the church's website, http://emmanuellutheranchurch.net.

Support for the meals program has come from a combined effort of the church and the community, Heidgerd said.

“There's a lot of church support, but there's also a lot of community support,” he said. “There's so many people that have noticed us and have supported us.”

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