Church at Rock Creek building 11,000-square-foot food bank center

This is a courtesy photo of Mark Evans, pastor of The Church at Rock Creek in Little Rock. (Courtesy photo)

The Church at Rock Creek in Little Rock has broken ground on a new 11,000-square-foot food bank center.

The Baptist congregation currently gives groceries to more than 300 families every month, while also passing out backpacks full of food each week to 1,600 children.

It needs more space in order to store the food and serve more hungry people, pastor Mark Evans said.

"We take very seriously that Jesus tells us to feed the hungry," he said.

The goal is to have it completed by April.

The building will cost about $2 million. Evans said his congregants are giving generously.

"We're off to a great start, and I do think that we'll be able to finalize this building debt-free," he said.

At Rock Creek, this type of ministry has deep roots.

"One of the things that we've done since we started the church [in 1995] was to meet real physical needs that people have here in Central Arkansas. Food need, food insecurity, has just been a ... constant problem and it's been a growing problem over the last 28 years," he said.

In 2006, when the congregation was erecting its new campus on 40 acres west of Interstate 430, it built its care center, which houses its food pantry, before building its worship center, Evans said.

"I wanted to make a statement to our church that ministry is more important than finding us a nice place to hang out," he said. "It's part of the DNA of our church to meet people's real needs, ultimately with the goal of also introducing them to Jesus."

The new building will be devoted entirely to food outreach, essentially doubling the ministry's space.

"There will be shelves to hold shelf stable food. There'll be freezers and walk-in refrigerators to hold meats and produce and that sort of thing," said Nick Burt, the congregation's executive director of communications.

Right now, "We're out of space," he said.

With the current building, "There's always more people that need food than we can serve. And we've had offers to receive more food than we can actually safely store. So that's kind of how it came," he said.

The church seeks to address food insecurity for families, with a special emphasis on children.

"Through Feed Arkansas Kids, we take them seven meals, plus snacks, on weekends," Evans said. "Our commitment to a child is that if we start feeding you in August, we're going to feed you every weekend through the year," he said.

Early in the covid-19 pandemic, the government sent millions of Americans three rounds of "Economic Impact Payments."

That funding was temporary. The needs, Evans said, are long-lasting.

"The number of families that are contacting us weekly that need food, that number is up about 25% over the last year," he said.

The state's unemployment rate may be 2.9%, as of September, but plenty of people are genuinely struggling, he said.

"I think the economy is doing well for a lot of us who have good jobs, but for the person that struggles paycheck to paycheck or is constantly trying to find work -- that's who's having a really difficult time," he said.

Inflation is also biting away at the dollar's purchasing power, he said.

"The price of food has skyrocketed," he said.

The congregation buys some of the supplies from the Arkansas Food Bank or elsewhere so it has seen the costs soar. Fortunately, Walmart and Kroger donate many of the items.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known as "food stamps," provides a safety net, of sorts, but it isn't sufficient to get by, he said.

"That program, while it's a great assistance, it is just assistance at best. You certainly can't feed a family on the food stamp program for a month. Not at all. Not even close," he said.

Echoing Jesus' words as recorded in Mark 14:7, Evans said: "We'll always have people in poverty."

"The poor will always be with us and so we have a forever mandate -- as long as we're on the planet -- to minister to them, care for them and provide for them," he said.