Stephen and Suellen Daniel began Meals by Grace almost 10 years ago. Beginning with one family, the organization has continued to grow and meet the needs of others. During the COVID-19 crisis, the organization provided over 19,000 meals between March 15-28! Read about this couple who saw a need and worked to meet it even when they themselves were struggling.
When I walked into the gymnasium at Midway Methodist Church in Cumming, Georgia, to serve with Meals by Grace, the room was buzzing with activity. A friend and her teenage son volunteered there once a month and spoke highly of its mission and their volunteer experience, but I didn’t realize the scope of what we were in for that day. There were about 200 people of all ages brought together with one thing in mind--to help provide food for the community. It was a beautiful thing. (Below are pictures of our church serving together.)
That day, our goal was to feed those in need in the Cumming area, but, before we ever got there, great vision and organization had gone into making this time of service and volunteering happen. That vision started in 2010 with Suellen and Stephen Daniels.
Almost 10 years ago, the Daniels lost everything in the economic crash. Suellen was working seven part-time jobs just to help make ends meet--they were struggling! During this time, she volunteered at a food distribution program with her church where only 18 of 50 families showed up for the food provided.
“I was angry so many didn’t show up; we needed that food,” she said. “At church the following week, the program leader addressed exactly what I was feeling and explained that many of the people just couldn’t get to the church to pick up the food. They were having to decide between using their gas to get the food or using it to go to work. I hadn’t looked at it that way.”
The leader went on to explain that there were many, many children in the area who didn’t have enough to eat. For Suellen, that was a galvanizing moment. Sitting in church, she grabbed her husband’s arm and said, “Not on my watch! We’re going to feed these kids!” In that moment, in that pew, Meals by Grace was born.
For Suellen, this calling to feed families and deliver food to them was a culmination of years of searching for her purpose. “I had been searching for my purpose for about 10 years. My friends in Bible Study kept saying, 'When God is ready for you to know, He’ll tell you.’ In spite of the encouragement, the frustration stayed; I felt like God was calling me to a purpose.”
In church that morning, when she heard of the children in her area who were going hungry, she says, “It was like all the sound left the room. It was so clear! I just knew what I was supposed to do and how to get started.”
When she spoke with the leader about her idea, he helped her get in touch with the school social workers as the best pipeline to get Suellen and Stephen connected with families in need.
“Our first family was a single mom with two kids, and we just took them what we had. I made a casserole and divided it in half. We kept half and delivered the other half to them with two tangerines and a brownie.”
“When we went to the door, the mom peeked out of the blinds and saw me with the food. ‘I’m with Meals by Grace, and we have some food for you and your family.’ That’s the first time the name Meals by Grace had come out of my mouth. The woman looked at me with disbelief. By the time we left that evening, she was crying and saying, ‘I didn’t know anybody cared about us.’ I cried all the way home.”
So, how does a person go from taking half a casserole one day to feeding over 400 families a week over 10 years later? For Suellen, it was an entire life of being prepared for this assignment.
“Growing up I was the black sheep--I didn’t act or talk like any other member of my family,” Suellen explains. “My whole life I prayed to be more like my nice, quiet family. Little by little I’ve realized that I’m loud because God needed me to have a voice, so that I can speak to people without fear. I’m super organized--I am a list maker, and I like to check all the boxes.”
All of these qualities have come in handy as Meals by Grace grew. By second nature, Suellen wrote processes for every part of what the organization did. “As more people said they wanted to help, there wasn’t enough of me to go around, but I could share my process sheets based on how I would have done something and send them off. I just wrapped structure around what the community already wanted to do and helped them do it. We have always said this is ‘By community, For community,’ and it’s true. I know it’s not me. I had no experience, no college, and didn’t know anything about starting or running a nonprofit, but here we are.”
Meals by Grace is growing and touching lives, but it is not without its challenges. One is the cyclical nature of food supplies and volunteers. “In the summer, food in food banks gets low because people are on vacation. Nearing and during the end-of-year Holidays people give more. It’s the same with volunteers. We’ll have 600 volunteers from New Year’s to Super Bowl Sunday, but other parts of the year, we may have to beg for people to come volunteer. People need to eat all year long. We make a year-long commitment to families to sustain them during difficult times, so it is important to have regular donations, too.”
Another challenge is the number of families on the Meals by Grace waiting list. “Gentrification has happened in Atlanta. Families move further out to find affordable housing, but they are leaving resources that they have taken for granted like public transportation. They may be able to afford the rent, but they can’t get a job because they can’t get to work. In addition, there are also over 5,000 children in our school district who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch because their families are part of the working poor and make just a little bit more than is allowed to receive these services but they need them.”
For many, the idea of people who work hard and have full-time jobs but still can’t feed their families is hard to imagine. Suellen has realized over the years that most people have a false idea of what poverty actually is.
“Poverty is not what you think it is. Right now we are serving 400 families, ⅓ of these families have had a recent medical emergency or are recovering from one. Financially, they’re so deep underwater because of this, they can’t get back on their feet. We serve grandparents raising grandchildren, and we have to be careful how we help them so that we help but don’t upend their economic situation by putting government funding in jeopardy. Our last ⅓ are hard-working people who can’t get a job because their skillset isn’t needed anymore. They want to work. Poverty isn’t what you think.”
Because poverty defies most of our preconceived ideas, it is important for volunteers to have an empathetic attitude toward those they are serving. Suellen stresses that, before anyone delivers a meal to a family, the volunteer should take some time to understand what the people they are serving are going through.
“Before you get out of your car, close your eyes and try to put yourself in their shoes. They’re already so beat down, so depressed, so shocked by their lives, so demoralized. They have no dignity and are so embarrassed; they don’t even want to answer the door. Before we ever leave our cars, we should ask ourselves, ‘How can I treat them gently? How can I treat them with dignity and give them respect?’ You treat them as you would want them to treat you. I know what I’m talking about - It has been me, and it was so hard.”
Not only do the families served receive help from this organization, but the people who volunteer with the organization benefit as well. Suelllen points to Proverbs 11:25, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”
Because everyone benefits from helping others, Suellen has some suggestions about how to get involved as a volunteer, “Find an organization that is doing something that touches your heart and partner with them. There’s an organization out there to do everything that needs to be done. They may not be doing the piece you want to do, but you can join them and help them grow so that they can do more.”
Suellen goes on to say that, often, new organizations that are replicating what’s already going on stretch the volunteer base, foundation fundings, and other funding sources, so check out what’s already out there before reinventing the wheel that already exists.
Meals by Grace is doing important work serving in its community, but they aren't stopping there. It is the long-term vision of Fill Ministries, the organization that Meals by Grace is a part of, to create a Campus of Caring on the property where the FM Aquaponic farm is located. FM Aquaponic farm was begun by Stephen Daniel as a way to grow nutritious, organic produce. The produce grown at the farm is sold to individual families and businesses and is also taken to families served by Meals by Grace. The Campus of Caring would be a place in the community for those who wish to help and those needing help.
Suellen explains, "The environment and programs would be structured in such a way you couldn’t tell who was helping and who needed help. A place to learn to be in community, to be accepted as part of a community again. There will be a farmers market, a coffee/sandwich shop, classes for cooking, a place to learn how to handle your money and budgeting, a place to learn about God, and a place to have the support you need to do more than just survive, but to thrive."
Note: Suellen and I spoke at the beginning of March before quarantining became a way of life. In the time between our conversation and the publishing of this article, Meals by Grace has been in action meeting the needs of the families they serve as well as others in the community.
From March 15-28, Meals by Grace provided:
--6,930 meals just through break bags (5 breakfasts, 5 lunches each) not even including snacks,
--12,705 meals to 605 families (aggregated) were served during the same time period.
That's a total of 19,635 meals just between March 15 – 28!
In just the first week of April over 200 families came to the pantry looking for food. Record numbers!
Want to know more about Meals by Grace, check out their website at https://www.mealsbygrace.org. They are also on Facebook and Instagram, @mealsbygrace. As they meet needs during these changing times and beyond, they always appreciate volunteers, donations, and prayers!