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story.lead_photo.caption Fred Belli, a volunteer with Breakin’ Bread Ministries in Heber Springs, watches as Henry Lewis prepares one of the to-go meals that are provided to those in need.

— Bruce Shearer is with Breakin’ Bread Ministries, a nonprofit in Heber Springs that provides food and other services to those in need. Shearer said he saw an increase in need as early as March.

“It just kind of exploded on us,” he said. “Since January, we have served more than 16,200 meals, … and that includes us being closed all of February. … By the end of the year, we expect to serve somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000 to 20,000 meals.”

By comparison, in 2019, the nonprofit served an estimated 15,000 meals.

“[The increase in meals] was expected because we have very few factories here, and the few we do have are closed,” Shearer said. “And most of our small businesses were closed, so a lot of the people we serve are not our normal patrons.

“We had people coming through who were regular families that were struggling with the COVID-19 response.”

Much like most restaurants and businesses, the dining room at the ministry is currently closed, and all of the meals are being served via drive-thru. He said it is too difficult to meet the criteria and guidelines for indoor dining.

“Most of our volunteers and servers are retired, or senior citizens, so we are just not able to have our dining room open,” Shearer said. “We are hoping after the first of the year to reopen after the restrictions are lifted.”

Currently, Breakin’ Bread Ministries offers dinners each week from 4-6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and breakfast from 8-9 a.m. Sundays.

Shearer has been with the ministry since it began in 2012.

“When we start serving, the line of cars is around the block,” Shearer said. “We are serving just as fast as we can.

“It is a free, first-come, first-served meal, and we give them however many meals they need.”

Some of the meals provided include beef stroganoff, hamburgers, spaghetti or chili. Shearer said the ministry was small when it started.

“A lot of people don’t know that one of the biggest issues here in Heber Springs is the fact that there is quite a bit of poverty and low income,” he said. “When people think of Heber Springs, they think of those who live on the lake, but a lot of those folks made their money elsewhere.

“There is not a lot of industry here. So we have a population of folks who are part of the low-income or fixed-income groups.”

He said the ministry also assists the local Disabled American Veterans group, as well as the women’s shelter in town. He said there is also a men’s drug-rehabilitation program just east of town that the ministry assists.

“We have a lot of churches in town that partner with us, including multiple Baptist churches and the Catholic church, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Shearer said. “They each send teams to cook. We have a lot of cooperation with churches in town.”

Tommy Tombs, senior pastor at Heber Springs United Methodist Church, is one of the founders of Breakin’ Bread Ministries.

“With COVID-19 and everything the way it is, people are strapped for money,” Tombs said. “[This ministry] really has been a blessing to our community. We have folks who support it financially, and without that, you don’t have a ministry.

“It takes a big commitment on the part of the volunteers and the people who support it financially to make it work.”

Tombs said it is the ministry’s philosophy to be a place for the community to gather and share a meal and maybe help someone who is hungry.

“No one is turned away. Nothing is asked from anybody,” Tombs said. “All you have to do is show up and eat.

“If you do, you will be served and treated with dignity and respect. That’s the way we do things.”

Tombs said that when the ministry began in 2012, he absolutely knew how big its reach would become.

“I thought it would explode,” Tombs said. “I thought we would blow the roof off. The growth has been incredible; it has not surprised me at all.

“When people are treated with dignity and respect, people want to be a part of that.”

Right now, one of the biggest projects for the ministry is to build a walk-in freezer — a $13,000 endeavor.

“We can’t purchase a freezer to store meat in because we can’t find them. They are not available,” Shearer said.

“We are having to turn away frozen meat from the pantry, and because of the amount of food we are going through, we can’t store enough. So we are in the process of building a walk-in freezer. We have a refrigeration company that is working with us so we can store enough food for the increased numbers we are serving,” he said.

“It would allow us to be more flexible with the amount of food we can buy at a time,” Tombs said, “and be more efficient in our serving.”

Shearer said that this year, the ministry has received a few grants from the Arkansas Hunger Alliance and the Arkansas Community Foundation to help cover the costs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We also have local churches and individuals that support the ministry through a monthly or yearly donation,” he said.

Shearer said the ministry is in need of volunteers for cook teams and is always looking for monetary contributions. For more information on Breakin’ Bread Ministries, email breakinbread714@gmail.com.

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