St. Michael’s Food Distribution Program

By Kathy Pieracci

Elevation of the Holy Cross Parish, Sacramento, CA

For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink: I was a stranger and you took Me in: (Matthew 25:17)

This is a love story, not only between two people, but the love and desire they had to help those in need.

Michael and Gisela Butcoff fell in love after a blind date. Although Gisela was only in the States on a six-month visa from Germany, the money she was expected to use to return home went to purchase a marriage license instead. Michael was a cradle Orthodox and always served in his church, even as an altar boy.

After their marriage they moved to Reno, Nevada for work, but soon found themselves returning to the warmer climate of Sacramento, California. There Gisela started to raise their four children while Michael continued to work. To help out, Gisela also worked in a cannery for over 32 years and gave much of her time to the school district.

Although Gisela was not Orthodox, Michael insisted that the children attend Sunday School at the Church of the Holy Myrrhbearers in Bryte. There Gisela and their children were confirmed in the Orthodox faith. Later they decided to attend the Holy Cross Mission in order to hear the services in English. The faithful of Holy Cross, at that time, worshipped in a small “house church” where, in 1984, the food program began.

A Heart for the Homeless

Michael would always have a heavy heart for the homeless. He was always eager to hand them money, but it was Gisela who told Michael that he needed to do more. With the approval of Fr. Ian, it was decided that a box would be put in the narthex where canned food or money could be left. These items were then delivered by the Butcoffs to those that were in contact with Fr. Ian. Gisela kept records of those that she visited and during the holidays she organized meals to be brought to them. Michael shopped everywhere to gather food donations, grocery stores and canneries alike. Because of the number of years that Gisela worked in the cannery, she was able to get half price for each ten cases of canned goods.

During this time Michael became aware of an organization called Senior Gleaners, originally a group of retired people that went through the fields after the harvest and picked up any fruits and vegetables that were left behind. They would clean them and put them in a makeshift shack for those who were hungry. From these humble beginnings the organization grew to operate in a huge warehouse filled with groceries of all kinds.

A Carport, Then a Garage Become the Distribution Center

As the list of people grew, it became harder for the Butcoffs themselves to deliver all the food. A space became available in the carport of the Mission to store the food so the people came to pick up their groceries there. Michael and Gisela started a system of gathering boxes, placing a piece of tape with the family’s last name on it and, depending on the size of the family, the appropriate number of grocery bags were placed in the box.

As space became a problem for those that worshipped on El Camino, the faithful of Holy Cross purchased property on Jackson Road in November of 1994. At the new location a garage became the food distribution closet and continues to serve as such to this day. Because of the increased number of families, two different groups of families were formed. On one week food is distributed in the boxes for the “gray tape” families and on the next week for the “beige tape” families. The garage on Jackson Road has now been named St. Michael Archangel Food Closet and in the corner an icon of St. Michael hangs.

The Tuesday Morning Process

Each Tuesday morning a volunteer driver and purchaser go to the Senior Gleaners warehouse and pick up a truckload of groceries to bring back to the church. The cost for each week can range from $25.00 to $40.00. This money is donated by our parishioners or supplemented by the church’s budget. There are times that Senior Gleaners receives shipments of canned goods that are given to each distributor free-of-charge. St. Michael Archangel food program tries to store them for the winter months when fresh produce is harder to find.

Many volunteers from the parish wait at the church for the truck. When it arrives, they unload, separate, and begin to place all the groceries in the bags. Within an hour the packages are ready. Families start to gather to receive. While they wait, the garage also offers racks of donated clothing from the parishioners that are sold for a minimal charge. This money is placed back into the fund for purchase of the next week’s groceries.

People are added to our list either by being referred by another person or by contacting Fr. Ian. Some of the families that we serve today were with us at the beginning some 20 years ago, and some families have moved on as their lives began to turn around.

Because of the service that we provide, Senior Gleaners also comes and inspects our location to make sure we meet all their requirements to feed the hungry. A freezer was purchased for the garage to hold any overage in food distribution for that week or for the purchase of turkeys and hams collected to distribute for the holidays. Funds are being raised to convert the garage into a heated and air-conditioned building with sheetrock walls, insulation, new windows and doors.

Old and Young Alike Are Involved

The old and the young alike are involved with this wonderful organization. Our seniors gather each week to distribute the food. They sit and fill bags from the crates of fresh produce received. Our children come and help during their summer and school year breaks. They help carry the bags to the cars. They have also been responsible for holding fundraisers such as a Pascha Bake Sale and Ice Cream Social that have brought in more than $500.00 for the program.

This year we are holding a “turkey collection.” We anticipate that the funds will generate a complete holiday meal for 50 families. We will also assemble dry soup or cookie ingredients put into cookie jars as a Christmas gift for each family. After church school the children will place the jars in each family’s bag.

During the Christmas break some of our children will pass out hot cocoa and cookies while the families wait to pick up their groceries. Last year families in the parish were asked to collect personal hygiene products or school supplies, put them in shoe boxes, wrap them in Christmas paper and give them as gifts to the children of the families who pick up the groceries.

Michael Butcoff fell asleep in the Lord on December 25, 1999 after a long battle with cancer. Even on his deathbed he wanted to make sure the food program continued. His legacy and his love live on. Each week Gisela and many faithful gather to perform this service. When we have finished for the day, we stand at the icon of St. Michael and give thanks to God for all His glory and ask that He continue to bless this work.

Kathy Pieracci, a member of Holy Cross Parish, Sacramento, CA is the diocesan camp director, a church school teacher and very active, especially with the children, in the St. Michael Archangel Food Closet and many other outreach programs. She is also a member of the OCA Department of Christian Service and Witness.