Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity was already a problem in Missouri, especially in rural communities, and especially among children. In March, when businesses shuttered, schools closed and many employees suddenly found themselves furloughed, food pantries across the country saw marked demand for their services. Over 950,000 Missourians seek help from one of the state’s food pantries each year, but due to the current crisis, those numbers are changing rapidly.
In response, farmers, agriculture organizations and food banks went to work doing what they’ve always done—feeding people.
“We have seen a tremendous spike in demand across the state,” said Scott Baker, director of Feeding Missouri, an association of the state’s six regional food banks. “Many people are seeking help for the first time and don’t really know where to turn or what options are available. At the same time, we’ve seen a decrease in food donations and volunteer hours. People are understandably concerned about their health and well-being, and that impacts what they’re able to share with the food banks.”
In 2014, Lindsay Young Lopez took on the role of president and CEO for The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri, which serves 32 counties from as far south as the Lake of the Ozarks and north to the Iowa border. Lopez grew up on a farm in Fayette, Mo., where her dad raised crops and cattle. In her area, local pantries have seen increases of anywhere from a few extra families to more than 100 extra people seeking their services.
The symptoms of hunger can be hard to recognize, Lopez said.
“I think it’s important rural communities know we are serving people who may be their neighbor,” she said. “It may be someone that they work with. It may be a friend who has had a divorce or the death of a spouse or a job loss. There’s any number of reasons why someone may need that support from a pantry or a soup kitchen or one of our partner agencies.”
Feeding Missouri falls under the umbrella of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. Founded in the 1960s, it is a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries, soup kitchens and meal programs. Yearly, these organizations collectively serve 4 billion meals and 40 million people. In Missouri, that equates to 123 million pounds of food annually.
Facilitating farm donations
“Missouri’s farming community has been very active in recent years when it comes to addressing Missouri’s hunger problem,” Baker said. “We have received tremendous support from producers across the board. While most of this has come in the form of monetary donations, we have seen cases where there have been some direct donations of products like pork, eggs and other commodities.”
Recently, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Feeding America asked the USDA to make it easier for farmers to donate food previously destined for large buyers such as restaurants, hotels and schools but disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to AFBF President Zippy Duvall, the USDA responded enthusiastically to this proposal.
“They see this as a way to help both families in need of food and farmers who are anxious to provide it,” Duvall said. “Farmers hope this effort helps provide more food to the increasing number of struggling families. The program would also help farmers, who are struggling themselves, at least recover some of what they put into planting and harvesting.”
In their letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the organizations proposed a USDA-run voucher system that would allow farmers and ranchers to provide food to people in need while also preventing food waste and recouping losses due to decreased sales.
“This is an opportunity for USDA to act quickly to produce a win for food banks and a win for farmers,” the groups wrote to Perdue. “It’s a chance for government to serve as a facilitator while clearing bureaucracy and red tape, which fits well within the philosophy you have followed in your leadership of the department.”
If permitted, the process would expand the partnership farmers and food banks have already built, The Food Bank’s Lopez said.
“We’re fortunate to live in a state where agriculture is one of our greatest assets,” she said. “Outside of our broader partnerships, locally we rely on farmers who want to be philanthropic and serve community members in need or producers who want to take advantage of potential tax benefits. We are thrilled about any agricultural partners who want to collaborate with us.”
The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri acts as a hub for various pantries, shelters and meal programs throughout the region. Food comes into its warehouses, usually in bulk quantities, and is repackaged by volunteers for delivery, pick-up or distribution to programs administered by The Food Bank. Participants include mobile pantries, senior boxes, the Buddy Pack program for school children and the VIP Veteran Pack Program.
But, like everyone, food banks have had to adapt to recent circumstances.
“Our organization largely relies on volunteers,” said Seth Wolfmeyer, communication and marketing coordinator for The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri. “We had 14,000 volunteers join us in 2019 and put in over 100,000 hours of their time. Because of the crisis, we’ve suspended all of our volunteer operations.”
To fill that labor gap, the Missouri Foundation for Health offered a grant to help pay for 20 temporary employees to assist in jobs that would have normally been done by volunteers. The National Guard also helped, taking temperatures at the Food Bank entrance and assisting with mobile pantries.
In addition to volunteers, Wolfmeyer said, protein is always a large need.
“Protein is always one of the hardest things to provide,” he said. “It’s expensive, and donations of it are more rare than other foods. But it’s so important for people’s health.”
Pigs for protein
Making the best of a bad situation, livestock producers who lost markets for their animals due to coronavirus disruptions are helping to meet the need for protein. On a Tuesday in early April, swine producer Joe Kendrick of Palmyra, Mo., received notification from his contract company that he would need to compost his pigs.
“It just felt like such a waste,” Kendrick said. “I told my field manager I was against it, and they told me if I could find a processor, I could donate the meat.”
Pork producers across the state face the same issues.
“A lot of farmers in our area who have contracts with large processors were contacted and told there wasn’t a market for culled hogs or hogs under 250 pounds,” said Mindy Breid, Farm Bureau Northeast Regional Coordinator. “And knowing there are so many people in need right now, they wanted to see if they could come up with another option.”
Kendrick had previously participated in a project with the Food Bank called Project Protein, so he called his former contact there who worked with United Way. Within 36 hours, they had lined up Central Missouri Meat and Sausage in Fulton, Mo., to take on the processing for 15,000 pounds of donated meat. To secure payment for a second round of processing, Breid contacted 19 county Farm Bureau offices in the northeast region for help, guaranteeing that a portion of the meat would go back to their local food pantries. The first round of processing was funded by Continental Cement and Green America Recycling in Hannibal, Mo.
“We are so grateful for that donation, and that pork has already been distributed to families in the area,” Breid said, noting that it amounted to 2 pounds of pork per family. “I know some of these families, and I know 2 pounds of meat means a lot to them. They were very thankful for it. Our second round is currently scheduled to go out the second week in June.”
With more pork processors suspending operations or reducing capacity, additional farmers seek ways to prevent their livestock from going to waste. Processing plant closures also put strain on the supply chain, making affordable meat harder to find for families who already may be suffering from food insecurity.
On May 11, Missouri Farmers Care announced a pork partnership with its Drive to Feed Kids campaign to deliver high-quality protein to food-insecure Missourians. More than $100,000 has already been raised for the effort.
“This is a proactive step to give farmers options to cut food waste and support their communities,” said Don Nikodim, executive director of the Missouri Pork Association. “Our partners across agriculture are raising funds to cover processing and transportation costs. It’s encouraging to see farmers working together to help in a time of need.”
Missouri’s agricultural organizations and businesses partnering with Feeding Missouri to cover processing and transportation costs include: MFA Incorporated, Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, Missouri Farm Bureau Insurance, Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, Missouri Soybean Association, FCS Financial, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Forrest and Charlotte Lucas (founders of Protect the Harvest), Missouri Corn Merchandising Council, Paseo Biofuels, LLC and Biofuels, LLC.
“It’s a natural fit that those who produce food have a desire to help those who need food,” said Dan Cassidy, chief administrative officer for Missouri Farm Bureau and chairman of Drive to Feed Kids. “When we think about Missourians being food insecure, I think many farmers in this state take that personally and want to help.”
Caring for kids
In Cassidy’s home school district, North Callaway superintendent Nicky Kemp had to rethink how students will access meals provided through the Buddy Pack program. With schools closed since the middle of March, the district wanted to ensure kids were getting enough food during the week.
“Our staff really stepped up,” Kemp said. “Principals and teachers volunteered to deliver food to students’ houses weekly. Prior to COVID-19, we had two different options for students depending on their age group. For our younger students, we would send the Buddy Packs home in their backpacks. For our older students, they could access a school pantry, which we’ve also kept open. Our counselors have been fundraising for items such as toiletries. Our Williamsburg teachers even had a parade while they were delivering food and school supplies.”
The district surveyed students to determine who needed meals and at what capacity.
“Everyone came together to make a plan,” said Erikka Brown, North Callaway High School assistant principal. “We actually have a fairly large geographic area where our students live, so our administrators, teachers, support staff and transportation director were all involved. It took everyone to make this happen.”
Brown helped deliver food, including breakfast and lunch, to students on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She logged some 1,300 meals per week.
“The kids are always excited to see us,” Brown said. “They’ve been in their homes, so it’s good for them to be able to see familiar faces, and the parents have all been very grateful and supportive. It has been neat to see a community come together and help keep things normal for our kids in some aspect of their youth.”
Kendrick said it’s hard to imagine there are kids in his community who might not be getting three square meals a day, but he knows it’s a harsh reality.
“It’s not a problem that goes away,” he said. “But I hope when things level out, we can look at getting all the players together and creating a more long-term, established program with the Food Bank. This situation has devastated a lot of people, but I think there’s some opportunity in it, too. If people are buying more products directly from farmers and taking it to a local processor who then needs to hire more people, that’s more jobs for our local communities. There are potential win-wins here.”
For farmers who wish to donate, Baker recommends contacting Feeding Missouri or partner agencies, such as local food banks or pantries, Missouri Farmers Care or Missouri Farm Bureau.
“We truly appreciate the support of Missouri farmers,” Baker said. “We know that this pandemic has had a devastating impact on them as well. We are always looking for mutually beneficial ways to partner with producers in the state.”
For more information on Feeding Missouri and where to access a local food pantry, visit www.feedingmissouri.org.
Drive to Feed Kids continues to raise awareness of food insecurity in Missouri
Before COVID-19, it’s estimated 1 in 7 adults and 1 out of 5 children faced food insecurity in Missouri. But in the state’s rural communities, that number almost doubles. Even during normal times, 1 in 3 rural children lack adequate access to food, according to data gathered from Feeding Missouri, part of the Feeding America network.
Those statistics didn’t sit right with Dr. Alan Wessler, retired MFA Incorporated vice president of Feed Operations and former chairman of Missouri Farmers Care, an organization that represents Missouri’s farmers and ranchers and promotes the continued growth of the state’s agriculture and rural communities.
In 2017, Wessler worked with former MFA Director of Communications Chuck Lay, MFA President and CEO Ernie Verslues and Missouri Farmers Care Executive Director Ashley McCarty to see if they could improve food security in the state by furthering the efforts of a fundraising initiative called Drive to Feed Kids.
“When we started working with Drive to Feed Kids, I asked teachers to tell me what they were seeing in their classrooms,” Wessler said. “Often they would say, ‘The kids come in on Monday morning. The bell rings, and there’s excitement, laughter. Everybody’s talking and smiling, but pretty soon you notice some kids lay their heads on the table or complain their tummy hurts.’ Teachers and administrators see it every day.”
In 2015, Wessler went to a conference and came back with an idea that originated with the Joplin tornado relief effort and a company called Nutra Blend based out of Neosho, Mo. Like MFA Incorporated and many other agricultural partners, Nutra Blend is also a member of Missouri Farmers Care and helped launch the Drive to Feed Kids campaign in 2014.
“It was an idea that sat in the hopper and simmered for a while,” Wessler said. “We thought a lot about what we wanted to do and how we would do it because there are two stories to tell here—one is hunger and the other is the great job farmers and ranchers are doing to supply wholesome food.”
In 2017, Drive to Feed Kids raised nearly $150,000 for Feeding Missouri to provide hunger relief in the state. The inaugural event culminated in a concert and food-packing day at the Missouri State Fair where hundreds of FFA members packed meals for backpack programs to be distributed to kids throughout the state.
“Every dollar that comes in goes to the backpack program,” Wessler said. “We made it clear that nothing would be taken out for the administration of Drive to Feed Kids. Every dollar raised gets diverted between six regional food banks, which support over 1,000 food pantries in communities across the state. I think that was a big selling point for folks.”
And each year since, Missouri Farmers Care has upped its fundraising goal. Since 2017, Missouri’s agriculture partners and citizens have raised nearly $500,000 through Drive to Feed Kids.
According to Scott Baker, state director of Feeding Missouri, every dollar given to Missouri’s food banks translates into 10 meals for local families.
“Food banks receive much of their food through retail and manufacturing donations,” Baker said. “However, as those channels have started to dry up over the years, food banks are required to purchase more and more food. As recently as five or six years ago, most food banks did not have a budget for food purchase. Now most of them have to buy food just to keep up with demand.”
While COVID-19’s social-distancing restrictions may alter plans for annual events such as the food-packing day at the Missouri State Fair, Wessler said the importance of the Drive to Feed Kids campaign can’t be understated.
“These kids are our future,” he said. “If they’re hungry, they’re worrying about that basic need. They can’t focus. They can’t absorb the material and they can’t learn. At the same time, we’ve got farmers and ranchers out here just doing a heck of a job in raising food, and we need to tell that story, too.”
For more information on Drive to Feed Kids, visit mofarmerscare.com/drive/.