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Age of Coronavirus: Food Chain Heroes Step Up In Pandemic Crisis

Agencies Helping the Hungry Seek Sustenance

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Above image credit: Harvesters served clients during a mobile distribution at Merriam Park Elementary last Saturday, in partnership with New City Church. (Courtesy | Harvesters - The Community Food Network)

Don McClain has volunteered at Harvesters – The Community Food Network for 15 years. He’s one of a team of 16 retired “regulars” who show up from 8:30-11:30 a.m. every Wednesday to sort and pack food in the warehouse. 

But since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 84-year-old has been the only one in his group to show up. 

“The main reason I keep volunteering is I know there is a need for food. If it doesn’t get sorted, it doesn’t get delivered,” says McClain, who taught Peace Studies at Park University before he retired. “I’m healthy and careful, and I’m old enough (that) if I got the virus (and died) it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

Harvesters volunteer Don McClain
Harvesters volunteer Don McClain. (Courtesy | Harvesters – The Community Food Network)

Many of the volunteers for social service agencies are the elderly who are at higher risk in the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Harvesters has seen a dramatic drop-off in volunteers at the same time there is a dramatic uptick in unemployment. 

Statistics out today show that 160,000 people in Kansas and Missouri applied for unemployment in just the last two weeks. During the first week of the stay-at-home order for Kansas City and surrounding counties, Harvesters distributed 1.4 million pounds of food, an increase of about 400,000 pounds from the same week a year ago.

“We are designated as a disaster relief agency, and we have operated during emergencies, but we never anticipated that we would have to spring into action for a pandemic,” says Valerie Nicholson-Watson, Harvesters president and CEO. 

Harvesters relies on 6,000 volunteers a month to distribute food to its 760 partner agencies spread across a 26-county service area. But now the number of volunteers is plummeting.

“You would think we could get 30 people to sign up, but we’re obviously living in an alternate universe,” says Paula Pratt, director of Community Services Engagement.

Harvesters posted a plea for help on its Facebook page for anyone who is healthy and able to sign up for a volunteer slot. Like many organizations, volunteers are required to sign a waiver that they are in good health and they have not recently traveled out of Kansas or Missouri. Schools groups and anyone under 18 are no longer allowed to volunteer. (To volunteer, go online or call 816-929-3000.)

Food Insecurity

In Lawrence, Just Food has been “more slammed than ever,” according to Executive Director Elizabeth Keever. By the end of last week, 3,425 people had received food assistance and 59 percent were first timers.

“It’s hitting people in every industry,” Keever says.

Keever also sees many in the local restaurant community, including chefs and waitstaff from across Douglas County, are donating food, gloves and volunteering time as many of their restaurants close or lay off the bulk of its workers.

In Overland Park, Plowboys Barbeque pitmaster Todd Johns also has decided to join the fight to feed those in need. An American Royal Grand Champion and founder of Plowboys Barbeque, Johns had been forced to whittle his three-location operation down to the drive-thru in Blue Springs, Missouri, which continues to offer a menu of burnt end specials and his famous loaded nachos.

But on Monday Johns reopened his Overland Park location to help pilot the Restaurant Relief Program for Operation BBQ Relief, a disaster relief agency based in Kansas City that was created after an EF-5 tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri. The organization has deployed volunteers to 66 disasters in 26 states since 2011. 

The goal of the restaurant relief program is to pump out 2,500 no-cost barbecue meals to organizations and individuals in the Kansas City community over the next 14 days by using his restaurant as a commissary kitchen. If the effort is successful, the program may be replicated around the country.

Plowboys Barbeque pitmaster Todd Johns.
Plowboys Barbeque pitmaster Todd Johns. (Courtesy | Ploughboys Barbeque)

“This could be the missing link to help keep some of my employees working,” says Johns, who had to lay off 40 employees and has been able to bring back six. “Whether my restaurants survive or not, I want to help in a time of unprecedented need. I’m just not sure the real need is even here yet, if we’re going to end up seeing 32 percent unemployment.”

The Department of Agriculture estimates that for every 1% increase in unemployment, there is a corresponding 0.5% percent rise in food insecurity, which is defined as not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

Harvesters already serves those who are likely to be hit the hardest, but even some who remain employed are finding the uncertainty of the times a struggle. 

A single mother and home health care nurse from Richmond, Missouri, recently received milk, apples, eggs, bacon, lettuce and chicken from a mobile pantry. She has an 8-year-old daughter who is out of school for the rest of the year. At the same time, her hours for working as a home health client have increased, leading her to juggle the costly expense of extended childcare.

“I think everyone was caught off guard (by coronavirus),” says Mary, who asked that we not share her last name because of concerns about client confidentiality. “Working in home health doesn’t make any difference on something this big. I don’t think any of us understood the magnitude of this.”

Operation BBQ Relief has a game plan for distributing food in the aftermath of tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes, but “we’ve created a lot of new processes and procedures we’ve never had to think about before,” says CEO Stan Hays.

Plowboys Barbeque’s Justin Rieck rolls trays of family-style barbecue to the curbside for delivery to organizations and families in need.
Plowboys Barbeque’s Justin Rieck rolls trays of family-style barbecue to the curbside for delivery to organizations and families in need. Re-hired staff at the Overland Park location are ramping up to serve 2,500 no-cost meals per day. (Courtesy | Ploughboys Barbeque)

Beyond the items that have become a standard issue – gloves, masks and sanitizer –  organizations have had to rethink protocols in the supply chain to minimize unnecessary contact with food, as well as develop new protocols in the age of social distancing for kitchen workers. 

Harvesters distribution sites have converted to drive-thru models. At New Haven Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Overland Park’s ReNewed Hope Pantry, cars drive through a parking lot where they can pick up food from pallets. Before coronavirus, clients were free to choose their grocery items from well-stocked shelves.

“It makes me feel kind of sad they are not getting to choose, but it’s the mode we are in. We’re able to serve more, and it’s faster,” says Karen Whitson, the pantry’s volunteer director.

Whitson’s job used to be part-time but suddenly she is working full-time to keep up with a jump from 80 to 138 families who were served weekly by the pantry and an increase from 183 to 220 using the bi-monthly drive-thru.

“It’s the same story, car after car. We’re seeing about a three- to four-fold increase in the number of people coming through,” says Doug Cowan, president and CEO of the Community Services League (CSL) based in Independence.

CSL has 10 drive-thru pantries and Cowan has noticed more people driving up to 2 hours round trip to pick up food after elderly volunteers in smaller communities decide to stay at home. 

Fog of Pandemic

The supply chain has been resilient but retail donations to Harvesters are at a virtual stand-still, which has required it to purchase the food it needs, which ultimately means less bang for the buck. In normal times, every $1 donated provides three meals. By contrast, every $1 spent to buy food will only provide one meal. 

Some major donors have been stepping up. Kansas City Royals Chairman and CEO John Sherman announced a donation on behalf of Royals investors, players and Royals Charities to fund more than 500,000 meals to address local food insecurity during the pandemic. 

But if Harvesters needs continue to rely on purchasing food, the organization will need an additional $8 million between now and June 30. Monetary donations from individuals are also accepted. At this time, Harvesters is requesting money over donated food.

Cowan sees a difficult road ahead for nonprofit organizations that typically rely on food-drive barrel donations and special events for a chunk of their annual funding. 

“We’re already looking ahead and wondering if they can do a gala in fall for 550 people that raises $400,000,” he says. “It’s not just about today, it’s about our long-term survival.”

For now, the focus is on feeding people in need today, and hoping an all-in-this- together attitude will ease some of the stigma of seeking food assistance.

The Kansas City Police Department tweeted earlier this week that officers had brought groceries to a single mom because she didn’t have money for food. The department tweeted, “If you are in a similar situation, please call 211, which can connect you to resources for help.”

Harvesters also has a food locator to help anyone who needs food find a resource near them. Check all locations before you go as hours are in flux.

“We’re glad to see new folks reaching out because we want them to be proactive. There are food supports out there and they should access those, so they know where their next meal is coming from,” says Cowan, whose organization also offers financial counseling.

Meanwhile, volunteer Don McClain plans to continue with his routine. “It would drive me crazy to stay at home and be socially cut off,” he says.

Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast and works with Harvesters – The Community Food Network and Plowboys Barbeque. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.

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