GIFT providing food to those in need

GIFT stands for God’s Interfaith Food Table and is an organized food pantry between four churches in Berlin.

Director of GIFT, Gary Banks, third from left, stands with volunteers.

In 1998, Gary Banks and his wife decided it was time to start giving back to the community. What started out as working in the food pantry at their local church turned into something much more, almost by accident.

“I started working with the food pantry at our local Methodist church, (Centenary United Methodist), and I said to myself, you know what? I can’t believe we don’t work with the Baptist church (Berlin Baptist) because our parking lots join each other,” Banks said.

He reached out to the reverend at Berlin Baptist to see if the two churches could work together and form one big food pantry.

“I found out somebody had tried it and formed GIFT between the four churches in Berlin,” he said.

God’s Interfaith Food Table is an organized food pantry between four churches in Berlin — Berlin Baptist, Centenary United Methodist, Holy Communion Lutheran and the Church of the Good Shepherd (Episcopal) that provides regular distribution to those in need. According to its website, it is part of a “recent movement toward ‘faith-based’ initiatives” as an alternative to government programs for assisting the disadvantaged.

Even though somebody had started GIFT, Banks was told it never got off the ground. He and his wife took over and immediately rounded up volunteers from all four churches.

“We were serving about 30 families a month at the Methodist church before I got involved with GIFT,” he said. “Once it got off the ground, it started to grow to the point that we were growing to a fairly large size, but it was difficult to work out of our church.”

GIFT moved its distribution to Holy Communion Lutheran, located at 442 S. Route 73, about 10 years ago, and he said word spread and it took off.

The majority of the donated food comes from the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken, and it receives a yearly grant from Shoprite that provides food for almost six months, according to Banks.

Funding and additional food donations are provided by member congregations of the four churches and organizations such as the Berlin Lions Club and Berlin Rotary Club.

Each week, volunteers prepare bags filled with the donated food, and they recently started including toiletries. Banks said none of this would be possible without them, who are mostly members of the churches and the Rotary Club, and the organization is always looking for more volunteers — even more so now because of the recent spike of people coming for food in February.

“This couldn’t happen without people volunteering their time, and we always need more help,” he said. “The program is aging and so are our volunteers; a lot of them are in their 70s and 80s. Anybody that wants to help volunteer his or her time would be appreciated. We’re talking basically three or four hours a month. In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing. Even once a month to help unload the trucks. The only way these programs work is if people are willing to give a little bit of their time.”

Banks said faith is the reason why he serves his community, but it never gets easier.

“There are some real cases that pull at your heart strings,” he said. “They rely on us, and it all goes back around our faith. Part of our faith is to reach out into our community and help others.”

If you are interested in volunteering, email Banks at grbanks@msn.com. For a distribution schedule, visit www.gift-berlin.org.