GEORGE KENNEDY: Food Bank wages war on hunger, but the enemy is growing

Thursday, September 29, 2011 | 5:04 p.m. CDT; updated 8:20 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 30, 2011

This week’s subject is hunger. To begin, here are a few numbers you might not know:

  • 38.9: The percentage of Columbia Public Schools students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches last year. That’s more than 6,800 kids. This year’s number is still being calculated, but it will certainly be higher. For comparison, five years ago 31.8 percent were eligible.
  • 8,000: That’s how many students in 136 schools throughout central and northeast Missouri take home every Friday a “Buddy Pack” full of free food to get them through the weekend. That number is up from 6,500 kids in 126 schools last year. The low-end estimate is that at least 55,000 children live in poverty in those 32 counties.
  • 11,719: The number of people who picked up food at Columbia’s Central Pantry on Big Bear Boulevard in August. It’s the biggest number ever. It includes more than 200 families who used the pantry for the first time. The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri also supplies 38 other outlets in Boone County alone.
  • 19.5 million: That’s how many pounds the Food Bank has given away this year through August. The total is about 1 million more than the same period last year. Food Bank managers expect to distribute close to 30 million pounds by year-end.
  • $0: What the Food Bank charges local agencies and clients for the food they get. Ours is one of only five food banks of 197 nationwide that give away all their food.
  • $2 million: The goal of the fund drive the Food Bank is conducting. The money will be used to expand and modernize the headquarters and warehouse on Vandiver Drive.

Those numbers tell a story that’s both depressing and encouraging.

It’s depressing because hunger just isn’t something that should afflict so many of our neighbors in a country that’s still the richest in the world.

And it’s encouraging — at least a little — because we’re blessed with an organization that is a model of efficient compassion in meeting a growing need.

Disclosure: I’ve been a volunteer at the Food Bank for nearly 10 years and a member of the board of directors for three months. It’s a satisfying way of paying my citizenship dues.

I’m certainly not alone. So far this year, there have been more than 19,000 volunteers. That, too, is an increase over last year.

The Food Bank is 30 years old. It serves the 32 counties stretching from Rolla to the Iowa border and from Sedalia to Hannibal.

It’s a wholesale operation, distributing food that’s donated or purchased to 135 pantries and other retail outlets where hungry people can shop without money.

There are even a couple of specially equipped trucks that serve as mobile pantries. In August alone, the mobile pantries served 3,563 clients at eight locations.

Those numbers show that it’s a big operation. Trouble is, it’s not big enough. So the fund drive will pay for expanding the cooler and the freezer, the volunteer work room and even the parking lot.

A new, mobile pantry truck was just added to the fleet. And still the need grows. For more details on the work of the Food Bank and the need, you can visit the website,

I walked in for my first shift in January 2002. The first people I met were two experienced volunteers, Jim and Roger (I use only their first names because I haven’t asked their permission, and they’re both modest men).

Earlier this month, we had a little party in the break room to celebrate their birthdays. Jim turned 85, Roger 79. Monday of this week, we all put in a morning labeling packs of frozen waffles.

We’ll be back next week. You’d be welcome to join us.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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