KC Challenge a model for food banks nationally

Saturday, December 15, 2012 | 7:00 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Mindi Jones was worried two months ago when she first handed out BackSnacks to kids at an elementary school in the Lee's Summit district.

How would she present the backpacks of food? What would she tell the kids? Hunger, and the idea that some families often don't have enough money and food, can be personal. Sensitive.

"I was a nervous wreck," said Jones, a counselor at Greenwood Elementary. "I just didn't know how the children would react."

For so long, community advocates say, the issue of childhood hunger has been tucked quietly into the background. People don't talk much about it. Some hesitate to believe it's real.

That seems to have changed in Kansas City. When The Star partnered with the Harvesters food bank two years ago to launch a virtual food drive, the goal wasn't just to raise money, but also to educate people about childhood hunger by sharing stories of children who too often go home to empty cupboards.

What happened next has become a model for other Feeding America food banks across the country, an example of how a community can come together and fight a social issue.

In just two years, people have donated more than $500,000 to the KC Challenge, from the $5 one man sent to a $10,000 gift from a church and $15,000 from an area business. All the money has gone to the BackSnack program, which sends packs of food home with children each Friday to tide them over the weekend.

Many people also volunteered at pantries and Harvesters for the first time. During last year's Star Sundays, where readers pitched in to fill BackSnack packs, nearly 600 people volunteered. Seventy-five percent were first-timers at Harvesters.

Others who read about hunger and families' stories called schools and community centers to ask what they could do.

"When people hear about it, and realize children are hungry, I think they do want to help," said Sister Berta Sailer of Operation Breakthrough, which has a food pantry on the site. "Some people just didn't know."

Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, has watched the KC Challenge and says the education component is key.

The whole partnership, with the community stepping up, has become a "best practice" model for other banks, Fraser said. A Harvesters employee went to Chicago last year to train other food banks on how the Kansas City effort mobilized the community to help hungry kids.

"It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure every child in this country is properly nourished," he said.

When one Northland woman read about the BackSnack program and then learned that her son's school had it, she made up bags of extra treats to put inside for Christmas. Two families in Johnson County have now made it a holiday tradition to help hungry families at a Kansas City housing complex whose residents were featured in stories.

And one CEO who read about hungry kids in Kansas City also partnered with Harvesters to raise money.

This month, Harvesters and The Star have teamed up again for a third virtual food drive. The newspaper is publishing a series of stories that show hunger through the eyes of children: The little boy who has received a weekend backpack of food for several years and looks forward to the beef jerky. The Olathe teen who for her 16th birthday asked friends to bring jars of peanut butter and jelly for a Kansas City shelter instead of presents.

"This is putting hunger on the community's agenda," Karen Haren, president and CEO of Harvesters, which serves a 26-county area, said of the KC Challenge. "Putting this in the forefront makes it something that our community can address and empower people to act.

"To see the commitment to do something about it, people wanting to do whatever they can, that is what's unprecedented."

Identifying the need

Cafeteria workers watch for them: The kids who clean their trays quickly, even all the vegetables, and ask for more. The kids who pocket a piece of fruit when they think no one is looking, eager to take it home for later.

Teachers know the kids who come to school with stomachaches, confessing they haven't eaten since they were at school the day before. Nurses keep granola bars and crackers for hungry kids.

All recommend children for the BackSnack program, which has grown so much in the past eight years — from 65 students a week during the first year's pilot program to an estimated 19,000 by the end of this school year — that Harvesters' program is the largest in the Feeding America network of 200 banks.

Advocates estimate that an additional 23,000 or so kids in the Harvesters area still need the weekend packs.

At Kennedy Elementary in Lawrence, 40 schoolchildren received BackSnacks on Friday. At least 35 more are on the waiting list.

Brooke Miller, who organizes the school's program, said it's getting harder to choose who gets BackSnacks and who doesn't.

"We do have kids that their only meals are when they're at school," said Miller, who is site coordinator for Communities in Schools of Kansas. "We have students with six siblings at home and nobody is working. We have families that go to the food pantry.

"You can tell when a student is lethargic, unable to focus. You can tell when lips look dry and they seem irritable and listless. If we can put food in their bellies while they're here so they can focus as much as possible, that's what we aim to do."

She realizes, and hopes others do too, that this issue is one that falls on everyone in a community.

"If we don't support the people in our neighborhood and help our children to grow up strong and be able to get an education, what can we hope for the community in the future?"

Though just 15 percent of the kids at Greenwood Elementary in the Lee's Summit district receive free and reduced-price meals, counselor Jones knew that some families struggled. When she called the kids together that Friday in October, when the school launched its BackSnack program, she told them they would be part of a special group.

"You are so lucky," she told them. "We'll meet on Fridays and I'll give you a backpack with food in it."

A touch of nervousness still lingered in her stomach, but not for long.

The kids hollered. They applauded.

Jones cried.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh,'" she said. "I never dreamed that they would cheer and clap for food."

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