The quest to address childhood hunger in the Kansas City region unites concerned citizens of all types around one of the most admired programs in our area: BackSnacks
Run by Harvesters — The Community Food Network, the program sends 19,000 needy children home from school with backpacks filled with weekend meals. As the largest program of its kind in America, according to Harvesters, it’s hailed as one of the city’s most effective ways to improve the immediate health needs of children.
Yet, cherished as it is, there are naysayers who argue the program doesn’t solve the deep-rooted problem of childhood hunger and poverty. And Harvesters doesn’t completely disagree.
“It’s a Band-Aid for today, but it’s not the whole answer,” said Jessica Kejr, director of program services for Harvesters, a regional food bank serving a 26-county area of northwestern Missouri and northeastern Kansas. That the BackSnacks program continues to grow, she said, illustrates the program is definitely part of solving the hunger puzzle.
But because it is only one piece, Harvesters, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and many other local social service agencies are rethinking their approach, advocating for policy change and rallying donors around new strategies to address the root causes of hunger, especially among children.
Because, said Steven Curtis, director of community building and engagement at Community Housing of Wyandotte County, hunger has ripple effects.
“If you’re not eating and your stomach is growling — even if you’re lucky enough not to be sick — you’re not thinking about balancing your checkbook. You’re thinking about food and where are you going to get it,” said Curtis, whose agency operates a large community farm to feed the hungry. “You add one more stressful thing to living in the inner city, worrying about education, about crime, about vermin, about loose dogs.”
An Immediate Need
There is a wide gap between supply and demand when it comes to childhood hunger in our area.
Missouri ranks 42 and Kansas is 45 in the number of summer food sites, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Harvesters says that one in six kids in its service area are “food insecure,” which means they don’t consistently have access to adequate food.
No school means many children don’t eat at all, let alone have access to healthy food. It’s a health crisis that often goes undiscussed, Kejr said.
And, without school-provided meals, the average family’s grocery budget increases by $300 per month in the summer. That creates an impossible burden for many who are food insecure but don’t qualify for food stamps.
Harvesters, Catholic Charities, churches and many school districts are increasing their summer feeding programs substantially this year.
For instance, the Kansas City, Kansas, school district reaches beyond typical school sites by sending a brightly colored food truck to splash parks, community gardens, parks and other gathering sites.
Social service groups are persevering even in the face of donor fatigue, as contributors are seemingly tiring of funding basic stabilization services year after year.
Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas CEO Ken Williams recently urged nonprofit groups and government agencies to tell donors how those services are essential to curbing poverty.
Yet Catholic Charities has rethought the way it works with the 90,000 people it serves annually. It is using its emergency services, including food aid, as a way to build trust with people, so that the agency can address some of the fundamental problems that can lead to hunger.
“Providing that assistance certainly stabilizes people, just as triage stabilizes people’s vitals when they go to the hospital,” Williams said. “But at the end of the day, if you stop there, what was the point?”
One example is the Family Financial Transformation Program, a partnership with CommunityAmerica Credit Union. The program covers things like budgeting, credit scores and the dangers of payday lenders.
Catholic Charities is also piloting an effort with the St. Rita Center, which helps adults attend trade school.
This fall, the center plans to send six people to a 12-month trade school for jobs like welding and diesel mechanics. The skilled positions typically start at $45,000 but are unattainable for several reasons.
For example, Williams has talked to several motivated community members who can’t leave their lower-paying jobs to attend college for a year, even if there is the promise of higher wages later. That’s because leaving their jobs leaves them without money to cover day care, transportation, rent, food and other daily expenses.
The center will address all of those concerns and offer scholarships, provide additional enrichment and work with partners to solve day care and transportation problems.
Williams admits the programs are small and can help only so many people. But it’s part of a larger movement throughout the area.
In Topeka, a group called Kansas Appleseed is pushing policies to expand Medicare, to allow electronic phone signatures for social welfare programs, and to end the food assistance ban for those with drug felony convictions.
A similar effort is underway in Missouri where the the Missouri Family and Community Trust has launched No Kid Hungry Missouri in an effort to not only improve participation rates in summer meal programs but also take away the stigma of eating free breakfast at school.
Harvesters adopted a three-year strategic plan on July 1 that puts a renewed focus on addressing root causes of poverty.
“We’ll never be able to address homelessness or mental health, but we want to support the agencies who are doing that type of work. How do we be at the same table so there’s a coalition around all aspects of community health?” Kejr said.
Addressing chronic health is onay Harvesters can make progress immediately by offering healthy choices. It’s critical because Harvesters knows that 62 percent of people visiting food pantries in its service area have at least one member in the household with diabetes. About 37 percent have at least one person with hypertension.
Harvesters has already started conversations with Children’s Mercy Hospital, the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center and the child care programs at Project Eagle in Kansas City, Kansas.
Harvesters, Kejr said, plans to research more models that deliver food in innovative ways. For now, it will expand mobile food pantries and potentially school-based food pantries.
The latter is a big ask for teachers and aides who are already doing a lot things, Kejr said, but this approach has proved successful. Some schools have shown interest.
The second approach — a mobile food pantry — helps overcome a lack of space at schools. Harvesters is already providing the service at some buildings, dropping of pallets of fresh produce and bread, so that students and families can pick it up in parking lots that accommodate a lot of traffic.
Kejr said Harvesters delivered a record-breaking 51.7 million pounds of food in the fiscal year that ended June 30. It’s bittersweet. But it’s fuel to drive an evolving plan to fight what feels like an endless cycle.
Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.
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