Kelli holds out a small plate bearing a pile of fries.
By LAURA BAUER
The Kansas City Star
She wants her son, who has already eaten his dinner but still looks hungry, to have part of hers.
Antonio, 13, just shakes his head. Even when she urges him, tells him to take the fries, that shes OK, he doesnt budge.
Theyre always on me, telling me I need to eat more, says Kelli, who places the plate by her son. But I dont care about me. I want to make sure my kids arent hungry.
Alexis, 11, pipes up: But you have to eat, too.
The family lives in what hunger researchers call a food-insecure home, meaning they often dont have enough food and they dont always know where their next meal will come from.
In Jackson County alone, a recent Feeding America study found that nearly 37,000 children (22.7 percent of all children in the county) live in food-insecure homes. Children who dont eat enough can have trouble learning and lag behind others their age.
Most schools provide breakfast and lunch for children during the week, and on Fridays thousands of area children receive BackSnacks from Harvesters to provide food for the weekend. Each year, as money allows, the BackSnack list has grown to reach more children.
For Kellis two kids, the packs of food are essential. When money is tight and she cant get to a food pantry before it closes she must take a bus from her job after work the BackSnacks are everything, she says.
They live on Kansas Citys East Side in a three-bedroom rental house with blankets tacked over the windows to keep out the cold wind. Their gas was cut off several months ago when Kelli couldnt pay the bill.
When temperatures dip too low, she pulls open the oven door to take the chill off the two main rooms. She worries that she will tax her oven too much and that it will go out, too.
Candles sit ready on a small table just in case the electric utility shuts off their power again. Or in case she needs to mask the smell from the raw sewage from bad plumbing in the basement that her landlord hasnt come to clean up for three weeks.
Im struggling, says Kelli, who often gets crucial help and support from Sister Berta Sailer of Operation Breakthrough. The familys last name isnt being used to protect the privacy of the children and to prevent them from being teased at school.
No parent wants to even think they cant provide enough for their kids. Im trying the best I can.
She makes $11.50 an hour at a full-time seasonal job. When she got the work, after being unemployed for a while and making do on unemployment and food stamps, she lost her food benefits. She says she now makes 22 cents an hour too much to get federal assistance for day care.
But her kids dont complain. On this night, they sit in the small living room with her and talk about school. Antonio, who has autism, just brought home a report card with high praise from his art teacher. A creative mind, the teacher said.
Alexis, who sits on the familys worn couch with one leg tucked underneath her, has paperwork about her schools free lunch program that her mom needs to sign.
She wants to grow up to be a Top Chef.
So Ill never be hungry, she said.
And neither will other people. Her plan is to have a restaurant where she wont turn away hungry people who cant pay.
Ill give them free food, she says, but theyll have to pay me back next time.
Does Alexis worry now when theres not enough food in their apartment, when a meal is ramen noodles or something from her BackSnack?
She shrugs and gestures to her mom.
Shes the best person in the world, Alexis says. So I dont worry about food.
Kelli takes a deep breath and smiles.
Oh, Lexie, thanks so much for saying that, she says. I just worry about doing whats right for my kids.
As mother and daughter talk, Antonio grabs a couple of fries off the plate.
To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.