HANNIBAL — The Loaves and Fishes program of Harvest Outreach Ministries in Hannibal has fed thousands over the years.

But nothing compares to the need since March caused by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Loaves and Fishes got its start in Hannibal in the fall of 1999 when volunteers coordinated a spaghetti dinner one night a week in the basement of First United Methodist Church downtown on Broadway under God’s Harvesters.

The program which was taken over by Harvest Outreach Ministries in 2015, served hot meals Monday through Friday, until COVID-19 drastically altered its approach in March. Harvest Outreach Ministries is an agency of United Way of the Mark Twain Area.

Along with agencies in Monroe, Ralls, Marion, Shelby and Lewis counties, Harvest Outreach Ministries will benefit from the United Way of the Mark Twain Area’s 2020-21 Be A Hero campaign.

Since its inception, anyone could rely upon a volunteer group in the church basement at First United Methodist Church for a meal. Volunteers provided all the food, did all the cooking, and did all the dishes, leaving the basement ready for the next night. Each weeknight around 40-50 individuals could be found eating dinner together.

Amy Vaughn, founder of Be the Change for Your Community and consultant for Harvest Outreach Ministries, recalls her first volunteering experience at Loaves and Fishes.

“I sat next to a homeless, mentally ill, woman who prostituted her body in exchange for drugs,” Vaughn said. Vaughn knew there were tough issues that impacted Hannibal and Northeast Missouri, but for her, this was an awakening.

This was on a Monday night and the volunteer group that evening was serving ham and beans. Vaughn could not believe the amount of food this thin, distraught woman ate. Another volunteer pointed out to Vaughn that it was Monday night. This woman probably had not had a full meal since the previous Friday night at Loaves and Fishes.

“We didn’t solve all her problems, but we were able to feed her,” said Vaughn. For Loaves and Fishes, that is what it is all about.

Loaves and Fishes ensures those in need of food have a place to turn in Hannibal. When the public health threat associated with the COVID-19 virus loomed, it put this vital program at risk.

Organizers of the program knew they could not continue serving a congregate meal that encouraged individuals to come together and eat. So, they had to adapt.

In March, the program transitioned to a brown bag, grab-and-go meal system with food prepared by the Hannibal Nutrition Center. Individuals in need of a meal were to reach out to the Harvest Outreach organization and get a ticket so they could receive a meal from the Nutrition Center.

Harvest Outreach contracted with the Nutrition Center to prepare the meals. Each meal cost the Harvest Outreach organization $3.50 to $4. The organization ended up spending nearly $10,000 from March until mid-July for the program to continue serving those in need.

Dollars were raised from numerous groups including a grant from the United Way of the Mark Twain Area’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund, the Riedel Foundation and numerous other donors to cover the costs of the program. Previously the cost to Harvest Outreach to have the program was minimal as volunteer groups provided the food and did the cooking.

In July, with adjustments and new safety measures in place because of COVID-19, the Loaves and Fishes program found a new home. The program moved to the old Helping Hand Baptist Church building on the corner of 11th and Lyon in downtown Hannibal.

Since July, volunteers have worked each weeknight to ensure individuals in need of a meal have a place to turn. The program now has a grab-and-go format, rather than the congregate style dining that was normal for the Loaves and Fishes program prior to March.

Individuals come to the Helping Hands building and volunteers get meals and send them out the door to-go style.

The program has seen an increase in the number of individuals coming for food each night. Several nights, nearly 100 people come to Loaves and Fishes for a meal.

“A lot of our families live where their utilities aren’t on and they don’t have a working stove,” said Larry Hinds, the Executive Director for Harvest Outreach Ministries. “Our area has a really great need. There is a lot of poverty.”

Volunteers are crucial to the mission of Loaves and Fishes. The program needs more volunteer groups to provide and serve a meal.

“United Way agencies are under severe pressure to meet the needs in our five-county service area. Faced with social distancing issues, Loaves and Fishes has figured how to meet human needs without missing a beat,” said Forrest Gossett, editor of the Salt River Journal, a United Way board member who is chairman of the 2020-21 Be A Hero campaign. “I am encouraged that Northeast Missouri will deliver for Loaves and Fishes and our many initiatives to improve lives.”

Individuals and companies can give to the campaign by online at http://unitedwaymta.org/donate or mailing payment to P.O. Box 81 Hannibal, Mo.

Gossett said individuals and companies are encouraged to give to the campaign by giving online at http://unitedwaymta.org/donate or mailing payment to P.O. Box 81 Hannibal, Mo.

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