By Eli Pacheco 

It is astonishing how much food can help so many people. In Southfield, Michigan, one church-basement ministry is feeding hundreds of people a month.  

Franciscan Outreach, based at Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield, Michigan, distributed 900,000 pounds of food in 2023 – one lovingly-packed box at a time. It does not restrict its services to certain zip codes, meaning anyone who can get there can receive the help they need. 

John Grden is Franciscan Outreach’s director. In 17 years serving there, this full-time volunteer has seen lots of growth. 

“When I started as a volunteer, we were lucky if we served 30 people in a day,” said John, a member of nearby St. Michael Church. “Today, we had 119 families, so things have changed dramatically.” 

 

A friar in a brown habit and a man in a green shirt smile as they stand among the shelves of a food pantry

Br. Jeff Scheeler, pastor of the Church of the Transfiguration, and John Grden, director of Franciscan Outreach, stand among the shelves of food at Franciscan Outreach. (Photo by Br. Octavio Duran)

A friar welcomes three people who are picking up bags of food.

Unlike other food pantries that restrict their service to people living within certain zip codes, anyone who comes to Franciscan Outreach is offered help. (Photo by Br. Octavio Duran)

A friar lifts a crate containing four gallons of milk at the top of a set of stairs.

Franciscan Outreach is based at the Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield, Michigan, where the friars have served since 2007. Br. Ed Gura is one of several friars that regularly serve at Franciscan Outreach. (Photo by Br. Octavio Duran)

‘Tremendous demand for food’ 

Truly Franciscan, this ministry changes with the times.  

In March 2024, Franciscan Outreach served 722 families. In the first four days it was opened in April 2024, it served 372 families. 

“There’s a tremendous demand for food,” said John, who can predict how many families will visit on a given day with impressive accuracy, according to Br. Jeff Scheeler, OFM, pastor at Church of the Transfiguration.  

“We are seeing a lot of senior citizens and young people moving back home,” John said. “We see a 70- or 80-year-old person with a 12-year-old. You know those are grandkids. It tells you something about economic conditions. It is like it was in the 30s and 40s.” 

The 2020 U.S. Census – the most recent survey in a 10-year cycle of data collection – reveals that 31% of Detroiters live in poverty, 20% higher than the national average, according to data. 

Many visitors come from Detroit, a 20-minute drive from the southeast. With no borders at Franciscan Outreach – a feature that sets it apart - anyone can get help, and many do, even from areas such as Detroit, that offer other options. 

 “There are food banks all around, and it amazes me that they have restrictions,” Br. Jeff said. “You must live in a certain place to get assistance. People who are hungry do not understand why there must be borders. It does not make sense.” 

Service like few others can provide 

Founded in the 1930s at Duns Scotus Seminary in Southfield, where friars studied philosophy, Franciscan Outreach once offered clothing, plus rent and utilities assistance.  

In the 1980s, about the time Franciscan Outreach moved to St. Michael Church, it discontinued financial assistance (because of widespread check fraud in society) and a Southfield Fire Department edict (you can’t store clothing without a sprinkler system). 

Food has become Franciscan Outreach’s focus – and they do it like few others can, thanks to an army of 30 dedicated, hard-working volunteers, said Br. Jeff. 

“They are faithful,” said Br. Jeff. “They come every day. It is one of those jobs that requires a lot in between. Boxes must be prepared. John has a big, long table and a sign hanging from the ceiling that says what goes in each.” 

 

A friar greets people who are picking up bags of food at a long folding table.

In the first four days of April, Franciscan Outreach served 372 families. Br. Jeff says there is "a tremendous demand" for food. (Photo by Br. Octavio Duran)

A man wearing a green sweatshirt unpacks boxes of canned goods.

John has seen the number of families served by Franciscan Outreach grow by nearly 400% since he began serving there 17 years ago. (Photo by Br. Octavio Duran)

A friar stacks a pile of cardboard boxes filled with canned goods.

Approximately 900,000 pounds of food were distributed by Franciscan Outreach last year. Volunteers are needed to help manage donations and food deliveries. (Photo by Br. Octavio Duran)

Bountiful gifts 

Visitors get plenty on their monthly visit. 

A family of one to four gets 110 pounds of food, and those of five or more receive an additional 40 to 50 pounds. Using donations, Franciscan Outreach purchases food by the pound from the local Gleaners Community Food Bank. 

Gleaners also donates pallets of food and special boxes for seniors. 

Franciscan Outreach works hard to make it easy to get food to whoever needs it. 

“We do not ask people a lot of questions,” Br. Jeff said. “If they are in need, we provide them food.” 

Forgotten Harvest, a local food rescue organization, collects food that would have otherwise gone to waste from stores such as Panera, Target and Walgreens and donates it to Franciscan Outreach.  

They donated $14,000 to install a door in the garage area where food is stored.  

And the friars’ presence is constant, internally as volunteers. 

“They wear their habits often, and it is quite a witness,” Br. Jeff said. 

Br. Ed Gura, OFM, serves on Mondays; Br. Louis Zant, OFM, each Wednesday. And Br. Phil Wilhelm, OFM, also helps.  

Br. Jeremy Harrington, OFM, is 91, and stays active in the church and this ministry. 

“He is beloved by the people. He and I walk through every time the food pantry is open. We want to say thank you to the volunteers,” Br. Jeff said. 

“You do not have many food banks at which religious people come to say ‘hi’ to you,” John said. 

Volunteering: An ‘uplifting’ experience 

Hospitality is just part of the grace found here. 

Help is always needed. When a high school swim team volunteered, John put them right to work. “They did some heavy lifting,” Br. Jeff said.  

All involved are preaching by doing, John believes. And the benefits go both ways. 

“We are not using the words but doing it with our actions,” he said.