GEORGE KENNEDY: Buddy Packs fill hunger gap for kids, but not enough

Thursday, August 28, 2014 | 5:44 p.m. CDT; updated 4:54 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 4, 2014

With the opening of school and the football season comes another less celebrated but no less important kick-off. That’s the start of the 10th Buddy Pack season at the Food Bank.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll note that I’m a board member of what is formally called The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, as well as a volunteer there.)

Buddy Packs, for those who don’t know, are plastic bags stuffed with a meager weekend’s worth of food for kids who rely on free or reduced-price meals at school. Without them, there’s a good chance many of those children would go hungry when they should be recharging for another week of learning.

Each bag contains five basics. Last week, for instance, we put in individual-serving cans of hearty minestrone soup and ravioli, enough cereal for two modest breakfasts, canned fruit, an energy bar, a small bag of chips and a container of shelf-stable milk.

Packing those bags is a fairly boring job, consisting as it does of sidling down the row of food, grabbing one of each and repeating, again and again. I haven’t heard any volunteers complain, though, because we all know how important Buddy Packs are.

As a board member and a parent who remembers three kids eating us out of house and home, my one regret – and it’s a big one – is that we aren’t coming close to meeting the need in our 32-county service area.

Take our home county, by far the largest in the region. We don’t have this fall’s official figures yet, but last year we distributed 1,755 Buddy Packs each week during the school year. That looks pretty good until you realize that Boone County had 9,627 school children receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

My kids attended Blue Ridge Elementary and Oakland Middle. Of course, that was quite a while ago. Last year, Blue Ridge had 374 students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches of a total enrollment of 495. Of those, 65 got Buddy Packs. At Oakland, the numbers were 312 eligible out of 498, and only 25 Buddy Packs were distributed.

I don’t want to exaggerate. Not every child who meets the free lunch standard is doomed to weekend hunger. For a family of four, the maximum annual income for free lunches is $30,615. For that sized family, the maximum income for reduced prices is $43,568. At the upper end of those ranges, nobody should be starving.

Still, the Food Bank’s experts estimate that the 6,986 Buddy Packs we gave away every week during the past school year in 140 schools met only about 12 percent of the need.

Why so little, you ask? The one-word answer: resources. That translates to money.

Last year’s Buddy Pack budget was a little more than $1.2 million. This year’s won’t be much, if any, bigger. Overall, the Food Bank’s income is down a little so far this year, while expenses – especially transportation – are up.

The Food Bank, as you probably know, operates on a kind of upside-down fiscal system. We buy most of the food we then give away free to schools, pantries and other agencies. As a business model, that would be crazy.

As the operating philosophy of a remarkably efficient non-profit, it strikes me as eminently sensible. (We’re the only food bank in Missouri and one of just 14 nationally that gives away all the food.)

By now, you’re probably wondering what you can do to help. For one thing, you could join us in the volunteer room, where we pack everything from hotdogs to pretzels, in addition to Buddy Packs. Melanie Lake is the volunteer coordinator. Reach her at 474-1020.

Or better yet, send money. It only costs $180 to sponsor one child for a full school year of weekend meals. You couldn’t feed your own kids for that, could you?

It’s a bargain, and it’s a good thing to do. Think of it as an investment in the future.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor for the Missourian. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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