A Lawrenceville food bank has been reaping the fruits of Mike Massey’s dedication to making jam.
For the past three years, the retired engineer from Decatur has given 10,250 jars – and counting – of his homemade fruit jams to customers of the Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry, a Christian organization providing food for people in need in Lawrenceville and Dacula.
His jams are part of a selection of set-aside goodies called “above and beyond” because getting something homemade and made with love is a treat. It’s also entirely unexpected for many families who come for pantry staples when between jobs or trying to stretch their grocery budget.
“To have homemade jam is just something,” said Tom Balog, the co-op’s executive director for almost seven years.
Massey likes to have his jars back to cut costs, and, when customers bring in their empties, they can’t wait to get more, Balog said.
The food bank is one of six similar nonprofits helping to feed Gwinnett County residents who don’t have enough to eat.
At the Lawrenceville warehouse, a small staff and many volunteers give out 100,000 pounds of food each month, a weight that has tripled since the pandemic began. The pantry serves about 350 families weekly, also more than triple the pre-pandemic numbers.
During the pandemic, the co-op switched to a drive-thru operation that is still in use. Customers get a box packed with staples such as beans, rice and pasta, as well as bags of items such as cereal, bread, dairy products, fresh meats, fruits and vegetables.
In addition to Massey’s jams, there are other occasional treats: ice cream, candy, Starbucks sandwiches and other food from donors.
Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry was formed in 1995 by Lawrenceville churches trying to keep up with social service needs in the community. It’s still supported by churches and local businesses. Last year, 600 volunteers helped in some way.
“It’s the local community taking care of local people,” Balog said.
There have been days, especially during the pandemic, when shelves would empty, and Balog would wonder where the food would come from for the next drive-through.
“It’s like the story of manna from heaven; the next day, it would fill up again,” the director said. “Sometimes, we have had to make substitutes, but we’ve never been without food to give out.”
Balog said the homemade jam has filled a gap as jelly supplies have fluctuated. Much of the food is purchased from the Atlanta Community Food Bank and other regional pantries.
Massey is part of a small group of people who give those little extras. Chicken owners bring in eggs and vegetable gardeners share their harvest.
One woman makes scarves during the winter to be given to those living on the streets or inside their cars.
“It’s unique talents that people have that find a way to make a contribution,” Balog said. “We always say: ‘You’ve got a talent for something. What is it? Come here and find it.’”
Massey discovered his fascination with jams and jellies early in life. Homemade guava jelly was a childhood staple made by his mother and grandmother when growing up in South Miami.
“I would see (mom) making jellies and jams, and I think I remember helping her when I got a little older. Somewhere along the line, I got inspired to try and make them myself,” he said.
His first attempt was with hot pepper jelly. Massey tested different peppers and grew habanero chiles to get the right heat.
One year, he and one of his daughters made almost 200 jars of peach jam as party favors for her wedding. It was his first experience making fruit jams.
Since then, Massey has been making jams and experimenting with different flavors and fruits. He’s given jars to friends, family and even strangers. He also supplied another nonprofit with his hot jellies and jams for many years before finding the co-op.
“I just look at it as my ministry and my mission,” said Massey.
He got connected to the co-op through his church, Lawrenceville Presbyterian. The congregation is always encouraged to help with food donations and service, and supplying the jam was a way Massey could contribute. He started in October 2020 and has no plans to stop.
The 72-year-old spends the equivalent of a half day on a batch of jam and three or four days a week doing something related to his jam-making. He scours weekly sales flyers from nearby grocery stores for deals.
During 2022, he went through 425 4-pound bags of sugar, 105 1-pound containers of corn starch and 234 2-pack boxes of fruit pectin, and almost 1,000 pounds of fruit.
Massey is constantly experimenting with flavors and has created 34 combinations using seven fruits – peaches, pears, mangoes, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.
He uses 3 1/2 to 4 pounds of fruit for every batch, which he boils down and fills 13 8-ounce jars and one 4-ounce jar. All the 8-ounce jars go to the co-op. His jam is not for sale.
For each 1,000th jar, Massey would typically include a $20 bill on top. He wrapped the 10,000th jar like a present and included a personal note along with a gift card. It was a special mixture of peaches, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries with the flavor created for the event.
Massey said he hopes his jam brings a “little sunshine” into the lives of people who are otherwise dealing with stressful situations.
“If my jar of gourmet-quality jam brings a smile on their face and their kid’s face, then I’ve done what I wanted to do,” he said.
HOW TO HELP
Massey, retired engineer, figures if all the cases of jam he’s given away were stacked on top of each other, it would be approximately 285 feet tall, or taller than a 23-story building.
“That’s a lot of PB&J sandwiches,” he said.
For more on the Lawrenceville Co-Op Food Bank Ministry – to donate, volunteer or receive help: lawrencevilleco-op.org.