Volunteers package meals for Kenyans at the Parkade Center

Monday, October 1, 2012 | 8:13 p.m. CDT; updated 12:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Ben Gakinya, right, helps package meals with Silvia Kimani at the CRUSH Hunger food drive at the Parkade Center on Sunday. Gakinya is a member of the CRUSH Hunger steering committee and the manager of the Parkade Center.

COLUMBIA — Four generations of one family gathered Sunday to help package food for dozens of families in Kenya.

In assembly-line fashion, they put freeze-dried beans, rice and soy into plastic bags to be sent to a housing project in Nairobi. Father and daughter scooped the ingredients into bags, the grandmother weighed them, and the great-grandmother looked on, beaming.


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The Gakinya family was among the hundreds of volunteers at the CRUSH Hunger 2012 event at Parkade Center on Sunday, but they had a more personal connection to the cause.

All have deep roots in Kenya: Ben Gakinya, 30, manager of Parkade Center; his 6-year-old daughter, Lehni; his mother, Regina; and his grandmother, Edith Kirutu.

They and other volunteers packaged 112,968 meals, all destined for Jericho, the housing project in east Nairobi.

"It feels so good to be here," Regina Gakinya said. "I can feel it in my core." 

Crushing hunger

CRUSH, or Columbians Reaching Unfed and Starving Homes, is a new organization of faith communities, businesses and school organizations.

Its mission is to combat hunger locally and abroad. Sunday's packaging event was its first, and leaders hope to send 1 million meals overseas by 2017. The meals are designed to balance the malnourished diets that are prevalent in nations such as Kenya, Georgia and Haiti.

Each meal contains 220 calories, and each package includes six meals. The package weighs 390 grams and is assembled by volunteers at hunger-related organizations around the country. The U.S. Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments generally recommend adults consume 1,800 to 2,600 calories per day.

Ben Gakinya was approached about holding the event by Stephen McBee, the youth pastor at Alive in Christ Lutheran Church. The church was looking for ways to get the congregation active outside of Sunday service. McBee and the senior pastor, Tim Morris, contacted other churches and charities to combine resources against hunger worldwide.

"We were looking for ways to prove we believe what Jesus said," McBee said. 

They contacted Numana, a Kansas-based nonprofit agency that was founded to help conquer world hunger. Numana employee Rachelle Nebergall said Numana's  food-packaging events, like the one Sunday in Columbia, have sent 25 million meals abroad since its start three years ago.

When approached to hold the event at Parkade Center, Gakinya said it was an easy "yes." Numana provided detailed instructions for arranging the event, which streamlined the process, he said.

Family connections

The meals packaged Sunday are destined for St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jericho, Kenya, the church Ben Gakinya's mother attended as a child.

The connection his family has with St. Joseph Catholic Church gave CRUSH and Numana the confidence and security needed to go through with the operation, Nebergall said. She said Numana has never lost a shipment on the ground.

"We will not send our food unless we have contact," she said.

Jericho is a housing project in east Nairobi, built in the 1950s to accommodate 10,000 people. According to The Jericho Project, a UK-based charity, the population has increased to more than 50,000 people. Hunger, HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy are all prevalent issues.

The project is representative of larger needs in Kenya. According the World Food Programme, in 2011, 3.75 million people in Kenya were in need of food assistance. The total population of Kenya is about 43 million, according to the CIA. 2011 was a year of drought in much of Kenya. The World Food Programme reported that number of people in need of food assistance has improved in 2012, though 10 percent to 33 percent of children under 5 are at risk of malnutrition.

Reintroducing Parkade Center

Gakinya came to the United States from Kenya in 1999 when members of his family were in Springfield. He attended a Catholic high school in Springfield and moved to Columbia in 2001, graduating from William Woods University as a business major. 

After working in commercial real estate, he joined the staff of Parkade Center and became building manager in 2008. 

Gakinya said CRUSH was a good opportunity to show the community how the new Parkade Center has evolved in the last five years.

Parkade Center opened in 1964 and was the only major shopping mall between Kansas City and St. Louis at the time. The mall thrived until it began to lose retailers when the Columbia Mall was built in 1985.

In 2004, Cris Burnam purchased the property and began a major renovation. Slowly, new tenants were attracted to fill the space.

Cliff Baumer has worked in Parkade Center for 19 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Baumer, who helped put meals together Sunday, said he has watched the mall develop under the new leadership.

"Ben and the owners have kept up Parkade," Baumer said.

Another move Gakinya made was to introduce community art to the mall four years ago. The exhibit, which is part of the Columbia Art League's Community Exhibits Program, allows mall patrons to buy the art right off the wall; 100 percent of the profits go to the artist.

Gakinya, who is also a member of the Art League's board,said the exhibit creates an atmosphere that invites people to spend time at Parkade Center. He said Sunday's event gave him an opportunity to reintroduce Parkade Center to people who haven't come since childhood.

Giving back 

For Gakinya, sending meals back to his native Kenya is an opportunity to come full circle.

He praised the efficiency of the way Numana organizes food drives and the efforts of CRUSH and said he is optimistic that future events can be even more successful.

"If we can get this down to a science, it will be easy," he said.   

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