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Rural Missouri Magazine

Feeding Missouri's hungry
The Ozarks Food Harvest helps feed
soutwest Missouri's suffering silent

by Jarrett Medlin
(photos courtesy of
Ozark Food Harvest unless noted)
A 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.

A 12-year-old girl makes her home in a tent in the woods and wonders where she’ll find her next meal.

An elderly 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.

A 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 changed.

“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.”

Bart 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.

Today, Ozarks 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.

“People 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 and you’d never know it because it’s such a pride issue.”

Childhood Hunger

As community outreach coordinator, Jodi Alcon oversees several of Ozarks Food Harvest’s programs and often gives talks in different Missouri communities.

“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.’

“I 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 of Arkansas.

In 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 can’t provide them with anything, Jodi says.

“The problem with childhood hunger is so dramatic that we needed to start new programs,” she says.

That’s how 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 week.

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 year.

Calvin Allen, president and CEO of Springfield Community Center, has seen a tremendous difference in the lives of participating children.

“Kids who don’t 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.”

One in every seven people in line at food pantries and soup kitchens is a child, according to Ozarks Food Harvest.

At 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, for volunteering.

Yet despite all the program does, it’s tough for Calvin to talk about the subject without tears forming in his eyes.

“These kids 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.”

Eventually, most of the children do eat. Some resist cleaning their plates, however, so they can save food for their parents and siblings.

“Some children will try to hide food and take it home because they’re looking out for their families,” says Calvin. “So, we’ll feed 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 week.

Teachers and school counselors then identify children with the most drastic needs and give out the backpacks on a confidential basis.

Ryan Wood, 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.

“These 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.”

Finally, children learn about healthy eating through Club Fun.

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.”

The Elderly

Besides children, there are other groups of people who most citizens don’t envision as poor.

“About 10 percent of who we serve are elderly,” explains Bart. “There 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 for help.”

Currently, Ozarks 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.

“The cost 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.”

To 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.

“This program 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

Although 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.

“A good 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.

Besides 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.

“There’s 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

Despite sending out more than 65 million pounds of food since Ozarks Food Harvest’s 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.

“We have 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.”

Ozarks Food Harvest delivers food to more than 120 member charities each month through its rural delivery program.

There are plenty of incentives for business owners to get involved. In addition to tax benefits, it clears warehouse space and saves waste fees.

“It 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 part.

Individuals also 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.

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