When Nashville churches decide to love their neighbors through food pantries, they don’t just mean immediate neighbors. Or people in just one zip code. In fact, a new study by Tracy Noerper, a nutrition professor at Lipscomb University, shows that church food pantries feed hungry families across the metro area.

The food pantries of medium-size churches in Nashville serve people in an average of 7 or 8 zip codes, the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior study found. Two churches have a much larger reach, serving families in 20 zip codes. The food pantries of large churches, defined as those with 300 members or more, serve slightly smaller areas, feeding people in an average of 6 zip codes. Small churches, with fewer than 100 members, serve people in 3 zip codes.

“Word travels around,” Noerper said. “If people get a good bag of groceries, they might tell other people in need, in their families, or people in their apartment complex. And through these networks, all of the city is being served.”

It is not clear why larger churches have a more restricted reach than medium-sized churches. Noerper told CT, however, that “it’s not capacity that’s the limiting factor.” Larger churches may be more suburban and thus less accessible, or perhaps the congregations focus on a wider array of ministries and put less emphasis on the food pantry.

What is clear, according to Noerper, is that Christian ministries play an important role in providing access to food. About 10 percent of Americans lack reliable, regular access to enough affordable and nutritious food, Noerper said. One quarter of those people receive help from food pantries, the majority of which are run by churches.

Academics have looked at “food deserts” and the causes of food insecurity, but the role of churches is understudied. At least partly, this is because it is difficult to study, since churches do not report food pantry statistics to any centralized database. Noerper spent three years contacting churches in Nashville and showing up at food pantries to ask questions.

“I wanted to see how connected we are across the city and if there are adequate resources across the city,” she told CT. “What I found was benevolence playing out in many different ways. There are just so many goodhearted people, and it ties us all together.”

With funding, Noerper hopes to develop future projects looking at church gardens and farms, as well as simple ways to improve the nutrition at church food pantries by adding shelf-stable milk, whole-grain cereal, and cans of fruit to each bag handed out.

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