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Child hunger program faces big challenges, setbacks

Produce aisle of grocery store
File Photo

Missouri isn’t a place normally associated with child hunger.  Still over 56,000 kids qualify for the Buddy Pack Program.  The program sends a backpack of nutritious food home students from low-income families every weekend.

After increases in gas and some staple food prices, Buddy Pack program took a hit at the beginning of this year.  Also, the program lost one of its biggest donors around the same time.  

It’s Monday morning at the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri.  That means volunteers from the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia are putting together packs for the Buddy Pack Program.  The volunteers chat while putting together bags of rice krispies, granola bars and peanut butter. 

"It seemed like a terrific program to have some measure of food for kids on weekends for kids who might otherwise go wanting for it," says  Joe Weston.  He's been coming with the group for three years.

This terrific program, however, faced serious cuts at the beginning of this year. 

"It was the makings of a perfect storm, literally," says Peggy Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the Food Bank. She says everything that could go wrong for the program did go wrong back in January. 

The food bank lost one of its biggest donors last year.  Then, the cost of food used in the buddy packs increased between 15 and 30 percent in part because of increased gas prices.  Finally, a national failed peanut crop caused the price of peanut butter, one of the central items in the packs, to increase 50 percent.

"The food bank went through about $400,000 of reserves just in the last quarter of 2011 trying to stop the free fall," says Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick fought back with some possible solutions.  The first was an initiative called Adopt-a-Buddy.

While the initiative got the program through the school year without having to cut kids from the program, it wasn’t enough to sustain it.  Kirkpatrick says last year the program was in 138 schools feeding more than 8600 students and now they only serve 127 schools helping 6700 kids a week.

However, this isn’t all because of the food bank’s financial situation.  Kirkpatrick says several schools opted out of the program on their own

"When a community is empowered to take care of their own kids, that’s the best you can hope for," says Kirkpatrick.

Several communities began fully funding their own programs and have also been able to provide more students with food.  Dan Hite is a part of the Ministerial Alliance in Scotland County where community members took the program into their own hands.

"If there’s a need, people have a real heart to step up and see that need met.  So it’s something that I think is going to work really well in our community," says Hite.

The Ministerial Alliance teamed up with the school districts and local organizations to fully support the program through food drives and other donations.  Hite says making the Buddy Pack Program a local effort will be better received in a community like theirs.

"Being able to get people closer to the source of help is a lot easier to get people involved than simply saying would be willing to write a check for this amount," says Hite.

Still, Hite says it’s too soon to tell how Scotland County will be able to handle supporting the program on its own.

"Here’s what we have in mind and what we hope will happen," Hite says.  "And we’ll just have to see how everyone responds.  Maybe we won’t be able to give a buddy pack every week but maybe we could do it every other week."

Kirkpatrick says the food bank will continue the Adopt-a-Buddy initiative and are still looking for more donor support.                                

"As people are realizing how efficient we are and effective we are and they see their local numbers, people are jumping on board and partnering with us which is awesome," says Kirkpatrick.

Recently, the food bank has seen donations from Subway, Wal-Mart and MU alum and ESPN’s John Anderson in total giving over $50,000 to the Buddy Pack program. 

In the meantime, for members of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, Monday will still be Buddy Pack Day.