Lea Patterson vividly remembers days when her children were young and food and money were in short supply. Sometimes, Patterson would drink a cup of hot water, tell her children she wasn't hungry and give them the last food in the house.
It's an experience she wants to spare other families from encountering. Patterson now oversees Lamb Chop Ministries, which serves working families and people on fixed incomes who struggle to make ends meet.
Lamb Chop Ministries is an outreach program of Freedom Motorcycle Church in Rapid City. Patterson, 71, has run the program for four years. Every month, it assists as many as 20 families and individuals by providing fresh and canned food for at least three meals. Currently, most families who turn to Lamb Chop have pre-teen and teenage children. The ministry also serves an increasing number of single elderly or disabled adults who, too often, choose between spending their Social Security income on medicine or food, Patterson said.
"It's kind of word of mouth. ... They call me, and I find out how many people are in the family. ... I make sure you've got enough food to get you through a few days until you get your paycheck or your Social Security," she said.
The food boxes vary depending on each individual's or family's needs but typically include milk, eggs, bread, butter, meat, lunch meat, canned vegetables, potatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables, tuna and soup.
An avid home cook and former caterer, Patterson sometimes provides simple, hearty recipes for recipients with limited cooking skills.
"I'll give them two pounds of hamburger and say, 'You can make a really good hamburger gravy with mashed potatoes and vegetables and a salad,' and I give them all that stuff to make a meal, so they have a complete meal," Patterson said. "I like to make sure there isn't a lot of nonhealthy foods."
Lamb Chop Ministries obtains meat, bread and sometimes other food from Feeding South Dakota. However, the ministry relies heavily on donations of food and money year-round, said Linda Hilgemann, associate pastor of Freedom Motorcycle Church. Her husband, Brett Hilgemann, is the lead pastor. The church provides a designated room stocked with two freezers and shelving where meat and canned goods for Lamb Chop Ministries are stored.
Freedom Motorcycle Church members have a passion for giving to the community and actively contribute to Lamb Chop Ministries, Hilgemann said. Community support helps as well. Requests for food rise at Easter, Mother's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Patterson said. In November, Patterson's insurance agent, Doug Markworth Jr., and his wife, Shelby, bought turkeys, yams, stuffing and pies so Lamb Chop Ministries could provide Thanksgiving dinner for 68 people in 16 families.
Patterson empathizes with the people she helps. For three years after she and her husband divorced, Patterson was a single working mother who was going to school and raising two children. Those were the years she sometimes went without food so her children could eat.
"I was working two jobs, and I just didn't have enough to feed my kids," Patterson said. "I understand what it's like to work and not have enough."
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 38 percent of families in South Dakota are considered low income; 17 percent of those are considered poor, having an income lower than the poverty threshold. In 2017, the federal poverty threshold for a family of four with two children was $24,600.
A family that runs out of money — and potentially food — before their next paycheck arrives is considered "food insecure," meaning their access to nutritious food is limited or uncertain. They might be able to feed themselves and their families adequately sometimes, but not all the time. And according to Feeding South Dakota, individuals and families who suffer from food insecurity don't always meet the requirements for state or federal programs that could assist them.
Lamb Chop Ministries helps bridge the gap for people in need who perhaps can't or won't seek help elsewhere. The community has services to help the homeless, Patterson said, but other people in the area who face food insecurity can be harder to reach.
"People are proud here, and I understand that. Word gets around, and I have people that call me," Patterson said. "The dynamics here in the Hills are different. People are more self-sufficient. They're not as visibly needy, and it's harder to feed people here. ... So many elderly can't get around, and they're too proud to say anything."
Lamb Chop Ministries, like many charitable programs, sees a drop in donations in January after the holidays are over. Patterson welcomes donations, especially of food. "I would rather have canned goods or meat than money," she said.
Chicken, roasts, hamburger, ham steaks, lunch meat and even venison that can be frozen can be donated. Canned goods also are needed, including canned fruit in light or unsweetened syrup, Spam, tuna, vegetables, soups, spaghetti sauce and ravioli. To donate food, or if you need food, contact Freedom Motorcycle Church or Lamb Chop Ministries' Facebook page.
The Hilgemanns say Patterson embodies the joy of the Lord when she has the opportunity to give away food.
"She just gets so happy. She's an example to all of us on giving," Linda Hilgemann said. "She just makes things happen. She's always unloading food or packing food up. But because it's such a passion, she's just constantly moving the food through."
For Patterson, who also volunteers at Meals on Wheels, making sure people are well-fed is simply fun. "The Lord has really blessed it. I love it because it's more fun to give than anything else," she said, laughing.