A portrait of Mother Teresa hangs in the foyer of the Central Missouri Food Bank. It bears an inscription underneath the photo that reads, “Unless life is lived for others it is not worthwhile.” This religious message of service is the food bank’s guiding principle.
The Central Missouri Food Bank is a hunger relief organization serving 145 agencies in 33 counties through the distribution of free food, according to its Web site. The bank relies largely on volunteer efforts in its day-to-day operations.
Sometimes those jobs include shoveling hot dogs into tubs and packing them into plastic bags, as 15 volunteers from The Rock, a non-denominational church that meets at MU, found out.
On Feb. 16, the group volunteered for a couple of hours as part of the church’s monthly service projects. The turkey hot dogs they sorted and packed will soon be distributed to the food bank’s member agencies, ultimately ending up in the hands of those who need food assistance.
While the volunteers’ reasons for giving part of their weekend at the food bank vary, they all see service as part of their faith.
John Murray, a freshman engineering student at MU, said as a Christian he feels the need to give back to the community.
“God calls us to help out our brothers who are less fortunate,” he said.
Having participated in mission trips in other parts of the world, Murray said he saw a lot of poverty and hunger. However, volunteering locally has opened his eyes to poverty in Columbia.
“It’s times like these that I realized that there are people here that are suffering,” he said.
Jesse Kolar, an MU graduate student, said he sees hunger every day in the community, which compelled him to volunteer.
“I think I have a heart for social justice,” he said. “I enjoy the work they do here.”
The food bank estimates about 25 percent of its volunteers, or about 3,000 people, come from faith-based groups.
Organizations of various faiths donate time and energy to help the bank. In 2007, 31 of 188 food drives and fundraisers were held by religious organizations, raising 22,646 pounds of food and $15,298, according to the food bank’s records. In addition, faith-based organizations made up about 7.7 percent of the food bank’s total fundraising efforts.
Through events such as the “Souper Bowl of Caring,” the faith-based community contributes food and monetary donations to the bank.
Giving to the community as part of holiday celebrations is common among many of Columbia’s faith communities.
The Shanthi Mandir Hindu Temple and Community Center holds an annual food drive to celebrate Pongol and has an open donation year-round.
Likewise, the Jewish Student Organization held a fundraiser and food drive to benefit the food bank’s pantry location. The October fundraiser was part of the celebration of the Jewish festival Sukkot.
Hillel Foundation Executive Director Kerry Hollander said she doesn’t see as many people on the streets as she used to but that hunger is still a problem.
“I do know that people are hungry, and as part of the Jewish community, I try to make my own personal commitment to giving,” she said.
Religious events such as these are what Peggy Kirkpatrick, executive director of the food bank, said the organization relies on to help those who need hunger assistance.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Boone County has a higher median income level and a lower unemployment rate than state averages. However, as of 2005, 13 percent of the county’s population was living in poverty, according to the Missouri Hunger Atlas.
Sandy Rikoon, a professor of rural sociology and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at MU, said the demand on food banks is likely to go up in the next year, continuing the trend of the past five years. The same is true statewide.
“Our increase is one of the highest in the country in terms of food insecurity for people in need,” he said.
Food security is defined by the USDA for a household as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
The food pantry location for the food bank has already begun to see an increase, from 2006 to 2007, in the amount of people they feed on a monthly basis. While the pantry’s food distribution per month increased from 2.5 million pounds to 3.1 million over the same period, Kirkpatrick said, meeting the needs of those in the community is becoming more difficult.
She said this difficulty is compounded because the pantry is seeing more working poor.
However, she said she’s optimistic because of the spirit of the community she has worked with for the past 16 years.
“It doesn’t matter what the predictions are if you have the support of the community,” she said.
Kirkpatrick points to the impact faith-based and community organizations have in combating hunger locally.
“Most of the food drives — almost all of it came from Boone and Cole counties,” she said.
In 2007, the food bank brought in more than 238,000 pounds of food and nearly $57,000 from local food drives and fundraisers in its 33-county service area.
This donated food goes directly to people served by the food bank.
Free food distribution, Rikoon said, is what sets the food bank apart from other banks in Missouri.
The food bank’s policies at its pantry location also differ from more stringent government-sponsored programs.
To qualify for government programs, participants must meet age and need guidelines based on the poverty line that leave many needy families out.
However, Mike Desantis, marketing coordinator for the food bank, said the staff understands that hunger comes in all forms and situations, which makes assessing need from appearance impossible.
“I’ve never seen a hungry person,” he said, “because you can’t judge that just by looking.”
Sean Ross, manager of the food bank, said getting food to those who need it supercedes any logistical or procedural problems.
“We are not here to be the food police,” he said. “We are here to help people.”
It is this emphasis on compassion and service that stands out to MU student Murray, despite the messy volunteer assignment.
“Some people probably thought it was gross, but I thought it was fun,” he said.
While the group from The Rock sang along with gospel and Christian songs and had hot dog sorting and packing races, the service they were providing their community kept them slogging through the mounds of frankfurters.
Kolar said The Rock gives him an organized way to get involved with combating hunger in his community. This is something he said he would like to see more from the community.
“People need to quit turning a blind eye to justice,” he said.
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