I am RIFA – Community Outreach

Today’s I am RIFA features RIFA’s Community Outreach ministry. Cheyenne Rogers, our Community Outreach Coordinator, sat down to share with us about the ministry and the different ways it serves our patrons. 

“Community Outreach hopes to stand in the gap for people who are struggling to meet their basic needs. We hope we can help and walk them through whatever they are facing,” Cheyenne explained. As Community Outreach Coordinator, Cheyenne oversees the Community Outreach ministry and the Food Co-op. She also plays a role in RIFA’s other ministries: Senior Staples and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, school food pantries, Snack Backpack, and the Bus Stop Cafe. The Community Outreach ministry utilizes RIFA’s Choice Food Pantry, travel food sacks, and hygiene bags to ensure that our patrons’ basic needs are met.  

When a patron walks in the front door, one of RIFA’s receptionists, Mary or Abby, assesses their needs. If they need food for their household, a travel food sack, or a voucher for the Thrift Store, Mary or Abby will help them. If the patron has a need beyond food or a voucher, they meet with Cheyenne. Many patrons seek food assistance due to financial struggles. “We go through an interview process,” Cheyenne said. “Sometimes, I help set them up with an appointment at the Financial Empowerment Center (through United Way). We can work on a budget together. We strive to get to the root of their need and then refer them for additional assistance wherever needed.” 

The Choice Food Pantry is one of the Community Outreach ministry’s best resources. The Choice Food Pantry is essentially RIFA’s own grocery store, complete with refrigerated and frozen food sections. There are even shopping carts. All of the food lining the shelves is donated to RIFA, and our patrons are able to choose their own food to take home free of charge. Volunteers staff the Choice Food Pantry. Currently, we have volunteers on Mondays and Fridays. Cheyenne expressed that, ideally, we would have volunteers five days a week. When asked who gets to use the Choice Food Pantry, Cheyenne explained, “people who have a household. As long as they have that proof of residence and there’s a volunteer, they’re able to go back and ‘shop’ once a month.” By choosing the items that they and their household will use, we are able to reduce food waste. “It’s great because they get to pick what they know their family is going to eat,” Cheyenne said. 

Cheyenne explained that while all items in the Choice Food Pantry are donated, they’re organized by category. “We have all the different categories: grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins. I’m trying to get to the point where we have more healthy options,” she said. “I’ve created a whole section of organic, low sodium, gluten free, sugar free, and things like that. We’re hoping to see that expand. We have a lot of canned goods. We also have some miscellaneous items like cooking oils or cake mixes. There’s a frozen food section with miscellaneous convenience foods—proteins like ground beef and chicken. We have a brand new cooler that I’m super excited about. We like to keep our bread and fresh produce in it.”

When asked why the Choice Food Pantry is better than giving people pre-made bags of food, Cheyenne discussed the time it takes to make the bags and the risk of potential allergy issues. “It takes a lot of time to assemble the bags,” Cheyenne explained. “Volunteers make the bags, so we don’t know exactly what’s in there. If someone has a food allergy or dietary restriction, like they need low sodium, we don’t know if they’re receiving just those items.” She also explained that people like the experience of shopping for their own food. “We have people who call to ask if the Choice Food Pantry is open on that day. We’ll say no we don’t have a volunteer. They’ll ask when it will be open, and, then, they say ‘okay, I’ll be there then.’ We have people who will wait until it’s open because they want to choose their own food.”

When the Choice Food Pantry is closed or if a patron is homeless, they will receive a travel food sack. “The majority of the time, it’s our homeless patrons who come in regularly, usually every week,” Cheyenne said. “Now that the Soup Kitchen is serving three meals multiple days a week, we’ve limited the travel sacks to the days they’re only serving breakfast and lunch. We really want them to utilize the kitchen so they can get a full, hot meal, and get all of those nutritional requirements. That’s the goal. Travel sacks contain nonperishable food; it’s shelf-stable, doesn’t have to be refrigerated, doesn’t have to be heated up to eat. They can eat it on the go because they don’t have a place to store it or a way to cook it. Travel sacks usually have items like granola bars, peanut butter crackers, and fruit cups.

“We also have a different kind of travel sack for our patrons who live in hotels,” Cheyenne explained. “Maybe they have a mini fridge, but it doesn’t have a freezer. Maybe they have a microwave or a hot plate, but they don’t have an oven. We give a lot of microwaveable meals to those patrons. They get a little bit more food in those bags because they’re able to store and prepare it.” 

While RIFA looks to provide physical and spiritual nourishment, the Community Outreach ministry also tries to meet the basic need of good hygiene. Cheyenne shares, “It’s another way we’re able to meet a basic need. Some people go to the store and get what they need, and don’t think anything of it. But those who are financially insecure may not be able to purchase hygiene items, even though they’re sold at the Dollar Tree for a buck twenty-five. The question for them may be, ‘Do I buy toothpaste to brush my teeth or do I feed my child?’ So many times research has proven that parents do without in order to feed their children.

Hygiene Bags are available for anyone who needs them. Items in the bag include deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, body wash and/or a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, razors, and body lotion. All items are donated. Ideally, both full size and travel size products are available. “The people who have households, and they’ve provided proof of their households, receive the full size products.” Cheyenne continued, “our homeless patrons receive the travel size. If we don’t have full size, we’ll give our households a couple of the travel size, but it’s better for them to get a full size. They’re able to come once a month to receive those items, just like with their food for the household. They also give out some hygiene items through the kitchen because we have showers there. We schedule the appointments for showers through the front office, but the kitchen and outreach share those products.”

Cheyenne also oversees the Food Co-ops. The co-ops are made up of members who come together every two weeks for an educational meeting, followed by a trip to the Choice Food Pantry to select their groceries. One co-op meets at RIFA, while the other meets at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. “Currently we have five members in the RIFA co-op,” Cheyenne said. “We can have up to ten. We are looking to expand. These members come together and pay a membership fee when they first start and then they pay four dollars every two weeks, which is when they meet. They receive a quarter to a half of their food that’s needed for the entire month. By being a co-op member, they’re able to get a little bit more than someone who just comes in for Community Outreach once a month. They’re getting education from various speakers. UT Extension is a very big help. We’ve had Jackson-Madison County Library come in and explain their programs. They’re receiving education on such things as storing food properly and creating healthier meals to help with diseases like high blood pressure or heart disease.” 

Food Co-op members have formed a close bond. Cheyenne explained, “It’s created a family. They love each other. Sometimes, they pay each other’s dues. It’s really sweet to see them interact. They call each other throughout the week and check on each other. It’s a great opportunity for people to be educated, receive the food they need, and be part of a community.”

The money collected from the co-op members’ dues is put into a separate fund that the members use at their discretion. “When school started, they spent about $200 on cleaning supplies for South Elementary. They hope to help each elementary school through the next couple of years. Recently they purchased about $200 of winter hats and gloves and they gave them out in the Soup Kitchen during breakfast. They use the funds at their discretion. Normally it’s giving back.”

The co-op that meets at Pilgrim Rest follows a similar pattern. Members meet every two weeks for an educational meeting, but because they are not meeting at RIFA they do not select their groceries from the Choice Food Pantry. Instead, Cheyenne selects the food for their household, which is distributed to members after the meeting. There are currently seven members in this group, which has room to expand. 

Cheyenne also spoke on the benefits of having a social worker on staff. “A lot of people just need to talk things out. They’re hurting and they’re struggling and confused with how to manage all these things we’ve talked about like outrageous rent payments and being able to pay for everything. Sometimes they just need to release it all verbally. Sometimes they really just need someone to listen.”


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