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Seniors team with food bank to give free meals weekly
Program based at St. John Baptist started 2 years ago
Nearly 1,000 pounds of food are donated to the Sunshine Seniors for free distribution every Tuesday. President Belinda Dickey said the food is available to absolutely anyone, not just those living in the nearby community. - photo by Kristen Oliver

Sunshine Seniors Food Distribution Program

What: Free food distribution subsidized by the Georgia Mountain Food Bank

When: 8-11 a.m. Tuesdays

Where: St. John Baptist Church, 757 EE Butler Parkway, Gainesville

More info: Georgia Mountain Food Bank, 770-534-4111

A group of women all dressed in yellow serve fruit, bacon and grits to anyone who walks through their doors.

Known as the Sunshine Seniors, these women meet every Tuesday at St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville to pass out food to those who need it. Their 2-year-old feeding program has grown since its inception, and it is subsidized by the Georgia Mountain Food Bank.

“God just put this all together,” said Sunshine Seniors President Belinda Dickey. “I don’t look at it as a volunteer thing, I look at it as a ministry.”

Dickey started the group two years ago in the parking lot of the health department. She said it was tricky at first to serve families in the rain or the summer heat. She decided to contact Stephen Samuel, pastor at St. John, about using the church’s fellowship hall.

“I called him and he said, ‘Come,’” she said. “And we’ve been here ever since.”

On Tuesday, the Sunshine Seniors and the Georgia Mountain Food Bank were able to provide large amounts of bread, cheese, produce and desserts that had been donated to the food bank. Dickey estimated they serve as many as 150 people each week. When they have leftovers, they take them out into the community and offer them door-to-door.

“I had no idea of the magnitude,” she said of the need in the community. “We distribute about 1,000 pounds per week.”

Linda Webb, a Sunshine Senior, said the food available from the bank changes a bit each week. One week nearly the entire donation truck was full of fresh vegetables.

There’s no pushing, shoving or wanting at a Sunshine Seniors event. Dickey and the other members have a fair system in place to ensure everyone gets the food they need.

“People come in and we have a sign-in list, so we call them up in the order in which they’ve come and signed in,” she explained. “Some people wake up early and get here at 6:30 to sign in first.”

On Tuesday, the seniors also cooked breakfast for their guests and served it for free before the donation truck arrived.

“It’s a friendly neighborhood church group,” said Susan Williams, who came out to collect food. “They help me out a lot with getting vegetables. That’s important to me — I’d rather have vegetables than meat. But you can also socialize and see people you maybe haven’t seen in a while.”

Kay Blackstock, executive director of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank, said it is incredibly beneficial for a community or small group to take on a project like this. She said many might underestimate the impact the Sunshine Seniors have every single week.

“Because of the persistent and critical need, the Sunshine Senior Food Distribution Program will soon become a partner agency of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank,” Blackstock said in an email. “GMFB often fosters new efforts such as this until the groups have the capacity to operate independently. With the encouragement and support of St. John Baptist Church, the Sunshine Seniors food distributions will continue and hopefully grow in the future.”

Dickey said she’s grateful to the food bank and volunteers who go above and beyond for their program.

“What’s so wonderful about what we do is, the people who come, they help sort the food,” she said. “You can see that, not only are they coming to give, they’re coming to help.”

Dickey said the Sunshine Seniors are applying to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would allow donations from the community to be tax-deductible. They hope to raise awareness not only for donations, but for anyone to know they are welcome to join Tuesdays from 8-11 a.m.

“I feel like there are still so many people who don’t know about us,” she said. “We want to get the word out that we are here, and we will serve people, from anywhere, of all races. My thing is, ‘whosoever will, let them come.’”