COLUMBIA — On Aug. 3, they fed 307 families.
It was the highest number of people served in one day in the history of the *Central Pantry in Columbia, one of 135 pantries served by the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, formerly the Central Missouri Food Bank. No small wonder, considering a recent report released by Feeding America, the largest food bank system in the country. It ranked Missouri fifth worst in the country in child hunger.
“If you take all the households in Missouri, about 15 percent of them have insufficient food,” Sandy Rikoon, a professor of rural sociology at MU, said. “If you take only households that have children, it’s about 23.4 percent. So households with children are much more likely to be insecure than households without children."
Rikoon founded the Missouri Hunger Atlas, a report produced by a collaborative undertaking between MU faculty and students. Its goal is to illustrate Missouri food insecurity — not knowing where your next meal is coming from — by organizing data into accessible charts and maps, often breaking it down by county. The report, issued every other year, also measures how well programs are helping hungry families.
The 2010 Missouri Hunger Atlas, which uses data from 2008 and 2009, ranked Boone County as average in terms of food insecurity for households with children — at 19.1 percent, it is better than the state average of 23.4 percent. But this still means almost a fifth of Boone County’s population of about 150,000 is hungry.
Eligible, but not participating
Households with children are more likely to have challenges with hunger than those without children, Rikoon said.
Peggy Kirkpatrick, executive director of the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, estimates that about one in three children in the county do not have sufficient food. She said that last year, 16,695 students were enrolled in Columbia Public Schools. “Of that, free and reduced (lunch) enrollment was 5,872," she said, or about 35 percent.
One trend both Rikoon and Kirkpatrick found was that participation in free or reduced lunches is 80 percent, not 100. This means some children, though eligible, do not participate, and Rikoon and Kirkpatrick suggested this is because some children feel a stigma in doing so.
“Let’s say you’re in high school, and you qualify for free and reduced lunches,” Rikoon said. “If all your friends also qualify for them and get them, maybe it’s not a big deal for you to get them, too. It’s more normal. Whereas if you’re in St. Charles, and only 10 percent of the kids (get free or reduced lunches), you’re much more identifiable. Who would want to self-identify in that way?”
Kirkpatrick said it was mostly teenagers who did not participate.
“Some schools are not very sensitive to the fact that when they go to the lunch line, the schools make it extremely difficult to get the free and reduced lunches," she said. "They say all the poor kids have to go over to this lunch line. Well, my gosh.”
She added that the “insensitivity is not very often, and is getting better.”
A county with a higher percentage of children eligible for free and reduced lunch will see more participants because it is more socially acceptable to participate, Rikoon said.
Programs that help
The good news?
Despite a rise in overall hunger in Missouri during the past couple of years, Boone County is exceptional in terms of food pantry distribution. The Missouri Hunger Atlas states that food banks, including much smaller food pantries, distributed about 5 million pounds of food in Boone County.
“That reflects the outstanding work of the Food Bank for Northeast and Central Missouri,” Rikoon said. “It’s one of the top food banks in Missouri. It’s just outstanding.”
One of the programs it offers is the Buddy Packs. The food bank partners with elementary schools that have high numbers of children in poverty to assist them when they are not in school and don't have access to free and reduced lunches.
Before the children go home for a weekend or holiday, the volunteers pack a nondescript backpack full of kid-friendly, nutritious food, Kirkpatrick said. The food must be shelf-stable and include four items:
- A protein item, usually peanut butter.
- A grain product such as a granola bar or cereal.
- A nutritious fruit product such as individual servings of applesauce or raisins.
- A beverage. “They tried soy milk, but the kids didn’t like it, so they include fruit juice made with 100 percent fruit,” Kirkpatrick said.
Volunteers also fill the backpack with snacks, soups and microwaveable meals. The child brings the empty backpack to school after the weekend or holiday break, and the cycle repeats itself. Typically a full backpack will include eight to 10 pounds of food.
The program costs “on average 100 dollars per student, per school year,” Kirkpatrick said. “Last year, we helped about 3,800 children a week, so it’s quite an expensive program.”
The food bank’s annual review reported that 24 Boone County schools benefited from about 162,000 pounds of food last year. Funding for Buddy Packs comes from fundraising efforts as well as donations. One of the largest and most successful programs is Tigers Score Against Hunger Campaign, in which donors make a pledge for every point the Tigers score during a football game, or they make one-time gifts. It was started in 1995.
‘There’s no food there, and it’s not safe.’
Kirkpatrick said she began Buddy Packs solely because of a story.
“A little girl from one of the elementary schools here in Columbia didn’t want to go home for spring break,” she said. “(She) wouldn’t get on the school bus. One of the teachers ordered her to get on. She burst into tears, grabs the teacher’s leg, sobbing, begging the teacher, ‘I don’t want to go home. Please don’t make me go home.’ The teacher asks her why she doesn’t want to go home, and she says, ‘There’s no food there, and it’s not safe.’”
That story stays with Kirkpatrick.
“While we can’t do anything about making that home life environment safe for the child — that’s not our mission — we could do something about the food,” she said.
She attributes the success of the food bank to Columbia residents.
“Boone County is in many respects an enigma," she said. "The reason I say that is because we have several billionaires who live here, we have a great deal of wealth concentrated in Boone County, and we have a great deal of poverty like anywhere in the world.”
Kirkpatrick called people in Boone County extremely generous and compassionate. "The good Lord doesn’t quit, and the people don’t quit," she said. "We’ll keep going.”