volunteer distributes food at an Ozarks Food Harvest pantry
in rural Shannon County. The Ozarks Food Harvest is a nonprofit
food distrubtion operation in Springfield that helps feed 35,000
Ozarks citizens per month.
girl makes her home in a tent in the woods and wonders where she’ll
find her next meal.
man chooses between milk and heart disease medication.
A father of
two works more than 72 hours per week at two jobs, but still comes up short
on cash to feed his family.
A Gulf War veteran
is physically unable to work for money to feed her two daughters.
third grader with low self-esteem anticipates the free meals provided
at school, the only meals she eats, while debating how much food
to slip in her pocket for the rest of her family.
There was a time
when Bart Brown hadn’t heard such heartwrenching
stories. Like many of his Ozarks neighbors, Bart was once oblivious
to his community’s growing epidemic of hunger and poverty. Then,
seven years ago, he visited a nonprofit food distribution operation
in Springfield called Ozarks Food Harvest and that attitude forever
“I just couldn’t
believe the need for hunger assistance,” he
recalls. “I had no idea that we had this kind of problem in the area.”
learned more than 25,000 people in the Ozarks suffer from hunger every day,
and most of them are people he’d never guess — children, the
elderly and the working poor.
“I was employed in the media at the time, so I was like, ‘If I don’t
know this, then who else doesn’t know this?’ It was one of those
things where I felt called to do something.”
So, Bart did just that. He became Ozarks Food Harvest’s executive director
in 2002. Since then, he’s watched the organization grow.
Forty percent of the people receiving food from Ozarks Food Harvest
are children under the age of 18.
Food Harvest helps feed an average of 35,000 people per month in 37 counties
across southwest Missouri and northern Arkansas. Over the past two decades,
the organization has shipped more than 65 million pounds of food to a
network of nearly 300 nonprofit charities. At the same time, it offers
innovative programs to relieve Missouri’s hunger problem.
don’t understand that this happens here, in our communities,” says
Jodi Alcon, community outreach coordinator for Ozarks Food Harvest. “Hunger
is a silent issue here in the United States. We can identify hunger very
easily in the Third World because it’s so visible, but you don’t
always see it here in the Ozarks. Your next door neighbor could be struggling
never know it because it’s such a pride issue.”
community outreach coordinator, Jodi Alcon oversees several of
Ozarks Food Harvest’s programs and often gives talks in different
“I try to
break stereotypes at speaking engagements,” she says. “One
of the first questions I ask is, ‘Who do you think goes to food pantries?’ And
the audience will often say, ‘Bums and people that use the system.’
respond, ‘That's simply not true. The working poor, and one out
of every seven people in line at food banks and soup kitchens is a child.”
|The Ozark Food Harvest organization offers services to the elderly,
the poor and other throughout southwest Missouri and also portions
fact, 40 percent of Ozarks Food Harvest’s clients are under age
18. Many of these children only eat meals at school since their families
provide them with anything, Jodi says.
with childhood hunger is so dramatic that we needed to start new
Kids’ Café, Food for Thought and
Club Fun were born. The programs are geared toward school-age children
to provide them with the food they need to make it through each
Kids’ Café is
an after-school feeding program that provides hot evening meals to
children who might otherwise go home to an empty dinner table. Ozarks
Food Harvest partners with facilities where the children already
go, such as Boys & Girls Clubs and
community centers. Each night, Kids’ Café feeds
more than 900 children and serves more than 80,000 meals per
Calvin Allen, president
and CEO of Springfield Community Center, has seen a tremendous difference
in the lives of participating children.
receive a nutritionally adequate meal tend to have far more disciplinary
problems, educational problems and certainly social problems,” he
says. “We meet some of those basic needs with Kids’ Café.”
in every seven people in line at food pantries and soup kitchens
is a child, according to Ozarks Food Harvest.
Springfield Community Center, the program does more than
feed children. It teaches them responsibility and life skills by
allowing them to prepare meals, clean tables and help determine
the menu. Kids can even earn rewards, such as aprons and shirts,
Yet despite all
the program does, it’s tough
for Calvin to talk about the subject without tears forming in his
aren’t like your children or mine.
Many of these kids go without utilities for months; I don’t
know how they survive,” he
says. “These kids have a tremendous sense of pride
and when they come in new to the program, many of them
are too ashamed to eat. They’re ashamed
to admit they are hungry and needy.”
most of the children do eat. Some resist cleaning their
plates, however, so they can save food for their parents
will try to hide food and take it home because they’re
looking out for their families,” says Calvin. “So,
these kids until they’re full because some
of them won’t eat when
they leave here.”
The Food for Thought
backpack program is another way Ozarks Food Harvest combats childhood
hunger. Participating children receive a free backpack stocked with
kid-friendly foods like juice boxes, fruit bars, single-serve cereals
and easy-open soups and pasta. Ozarks Food Harvest
provides the backpacks and delivers the food to schools each
Teachers and school
counselors then identify children with the most drastic needs and
give out the backpacks on a confidential basis.
a student at Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield,
sorts canned food at the Ozarks Food Harvest’s
warehouse. (Photo by Jarrett Medlin)
Since its inception
in 2003, the Food for Thought program has given out more than 7,000
backpacks. Currently, the program sends out 360 bags per week.
kids get excited when they get a backpack, and they’ll
start sharing with other kids because they know their
needs better than we do,” says
Calvin. “That backpack program goes
further than we know.”
learn about healthy eating through Club
The program is
aimed at addressing childhood obesity, which is more prevalant among
lower class homes. Club Fun uses songs
and activities to teach basic nutritional
concepts at an early age. This knowledge
will serve as a foundation for kids to
live by, as making healthy food choices
becomes second nature.
“By 6 years of age, 50 percent of a child’s
capacity to learn is either created or not created,” says Calvin. “I
believe these programs are crucial to encouraging that development
on a number of levels.”
children, there are other groups of people who most citizens don’t
envision as poor.
percent of who we serve are elderly,” explains
are certainly more seniors who need help, but they won’t ask for it
because they’re part of a generation that doesn’t like to ask
Food Harvest helps about 3,000 people over the age of 65. Bart attributes
the elderly’s dilemma to increased costs
of living. Besides rising utilities and gas prices, senior citizens are
now paying more for prescription drugs.
The Full Circle Garden program, sponsored by Ozarks Food Harvest,
teaches low-income families how to grow fresh organic produce.
of medicine has gone so high that they often have to choose between
medicine and food,” says Bart. “That’s a double
whammy because they need the food for their medicine to work.”
aid these struggling senior citizens, Ozarks Food Harvest launched
Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Food items are ordered through
the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, and the food
boxes are then assembled and delivered to agencies located in counties
with a high percentage of poverty among the elderly.
is a great tool to help us break the stigma of seeking food assistance
for the elderly in our community,” says Bart.
The Working Poor
most citizens wouldn’t deny children and senior citizens
aid, there are some who say able adults have only themselves to
blame. This is a common misperception, Bart says.
portion of the adults who go to food pantries and soup kitchens
have jobs. But it’s tough to support a family on $6 or $8 per hour,” he
says. “There are fewer opportunities to get help in rural communities,
and a lot of people struggle to find jobs with decent pay.
|Food Pantry clients
wait in line to receive food from Ozarks Food Harvest’s
Mobile Food Pantry pilot project at a stop in Winona.
wages not keeping up with living expenses, Bart points out that many people
could be in a similar situation if they have a run of bad luck.
not a lot of give in many people’s budgets,” he
says. “If they have big problems, such as car troubles or medical
bills, they find themselves cutting expenses and sometimes the only thing
left to cut is food costs.”
In addition to
supplying food to hunger relief agencies — including emergency
food pantries, domestic violence shelters, soup kitchens, group homes
for disabled citizens and senior meal sites — Ozarks Food Harvest
offers educational programs for adults.
Ozarks Food Garden
is one such program that encourages self sufficiency. The program
teaches low-income participants about basic organic garden techniques
and provides land, supplies and support necessary to grow fresh produce.
Over the past several years, the program has taught more than 700
low-income gardeners how to grow, harvest and preserve healthy produce
for their families.
“It’s not only rewarding
for the food, but also because of the friendships you form in the
program,” says Karin Knartzer, a mother who lives in Springfield
and has participated in the program for two years.
The Need Continues
sending out more than 65 million pounds of food since Ozarks Food
inception in 1983, the need for help continues to grow. Over the past four
years, the food bank has seen a 44 percent increase of people seeking assistance,
from 26,000 per month in 2002 to 37,000 in 2004.
waiting lists for a lot of our programs,” says Bart. For
instance, there are 16 schools waiting to join the Food for Thought program,
but Ozarks Food Harvest simply lacks the resources. “It’s frustrating
because we do a lot of great things, but we know we’re still not doing
enough. As efficient as we are — distributing about $12 of food for
every dollar that’s donated — we can only do so much.”
Food Harvest delivers food to more than 120 member charities
each month through its rural delivery program.
are plenty of incentives for business owners to get involved. In addition
to tax benefits, it clears warehouse space and saves waste fees.
just makes economic sense,” says Bart.
Already, such businesses
as Panera Bread, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Presleys’ County
Jubilee in Branson and American Family Insurance are doing their
find volunteering or starting local food drives can be very rewarding.
“It’s great for anyone to volunteer
in their communities because they see there’s a real need out
there,” says Karin, who frequently
volunteers at different places in Springfield.
“When you see
a parent or child smile after giving them some food, it feels good
to know you’ve truly
blessed another person’s life.”
For more information about Ozarks Food Harvest, call (417) 865-3411
or visit www.ozarksfoodharvest.org.