Destinie is just 9 years old, but she talks pretty straight when asked what her BackSnack means to her.
That pack of food she receives each Friday to tide her over the weekend is “very helpfell to me because my family whont be starving,” she wrote.
Savannah, also 9, sees it the same way: “We run out of food sometimes. Cause we don’t have a lot of money to buy food. Sometimes it even safe us from no food and it is very nice that people are helping my family.”
Their words — and the reality that too many area children live in homes with empty cupboards — are why people like Annie Scott volunteer “to be a small cog” helping provide those weekend packs.
And why churches in Blue Springs have joined forces to provide weekend food to middle school students who are too old for the BackSnack program in elementary schools.
And why couples like Marilyn and Bill Jahnke of Shawnee realized they had to do more if they wanted to make a difference in the growing problem of childhood hunger.
The Jahnkes, along with family and friends, started helping 150 families in the summer of 2009. Now, through a nonprofit they founded, Hands to Hearts KC, they partner with Harvesters to help pack and deliver nearly 1,500 BackSnacks each week. School staff members identify children in need, and some schools have a waiting list.
When the need grows, so does their involvement.
“I think the idea that one person, two people or 10 people can make a difference is the thing that caught us,” Marilyn Jahnke said “One person can make a difference — that’s at the heart of the hunger issue.”
As Harvesters helps families fight hunger, more people throughout the community have realized that the food bank can’t do it alone.
It also takes churches and Girl Scout troops and a neighborhood group in the Northland dedicated to making sure kids there don’t go to bed hungry. It takes kids in Johnson County with big hearts who want to help other kids, and a mom in Kansas City who clips coupons and buys macaroni and cheese or peanut butter cheap just so she can donate it to a nearby food pantry.
As Steve Jorgensen of Coalition for Kids, which helps feed middle school students in Blue Springs, put it: “Communities are healthier when they own the problems they have.”
Starting Sunday and running through December, The Kansas City Star is partnering a fourth time with Harvesters on the KC Challenge, a virtual food drive where all donations go to the BackSnack program. Readers can give money in the name of a loved one, with dedications appearing in the Christmas edition of the newspaper.
The initial goal of the first drive in 2010 was to raise $25,000. Within 24 hours, readers did.
By the end of that virtual food drive, readers had donated a total of $235,000. Over the next two years, an additional $458,000 came in.
“The community’s support for hunger relief is important because it is this kind of compassion and caring that creates a community,” said Valerie Nicholson-Watson, president and chief executive officer of Harvesters. “And no one in our community should go hungry.”
Donations in the drive have ranged from $20 to more than $10,000. Some people have volunteered to assemble BackSnacks. Others drop off canned goods to schools with families in need. Still more have offered help to families living in low-income housing complexes during the holidays.
It’s what volunteers for Hands to Hearts have learned as they spend Thursday nights throughout the school year in an assembly line as they prepare, and then deliver, the food bags. No matter how little, it all helps.
“I may not be doing a lot,” said Hands to Hearts volunteer Katie Planting, 34. “But my three or four hours a week I put into it helps.”
“BackSnack means to me that I know somebody out in the world cares about me. It also means that me an my famly get food when we don’t have enugh food.”
— Bobby, 10
If children don’t get the nutrition they need when their brains and bodies are growing, they can face a lifetime of troubles, pediatric experts say.
It can start with delayed speech or motor skills during the early years, followed by social ills in elementary school and significant academic problems later on.
Helping children avoid those challenges is a big motivation for many area residents.
A couple of years ago, that’s what happened in Blue Springs.
In that district, about one-third of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, according to Jorgensen of Coalition for Kids.
“That’s kind of an eye-opener,” he said. “In Blue Springs, we don’t think we have a poverty problem. That’s kind of invisible to most people.”
Another surprise was that while there’s a program for weekend food in the elementary schools, older kids the next level up didn’t have similar help.
“We know the families are the same, demographics the same,” Jorgensen said.
So five churches joined together and began providing bags of food for children at the four middle schools.
“It works well when people say, ‘What resource do I have? What resources are around us?’” Jorgensen said. “And then put those together.”
At the middle schools, about 120 students take home food that Coalition for Kids provides.
“We have pockets where families are still struggling, and for those pockets it’s a tremendous help,” said Scott Young, assistant superintendent of Blue Springs schools. “We thought we had a really good program with the elementary schools (BackSnack) and it’s gotten only better.”
He said schools have received calls from families whose financial situations have improved enough that they don’t need the weekend food packs any longer.
“That’s the best scenario,” Young said, “when people say, ‘Thanks for your support, but we’re doing better, so you can provide that support to someone else.’”
“My backsnack full of food means I will have more food to eat and it makes me feel secure and worry less.”
— Serene, 9
For the Jahnkes, the idea started small a few years ago.
A group of men who routinely gathered for Bible study at a Shawnee coffee shop had been on a few mission trips. From different churches and denominations, some of the men and their wives had worked with families and children helping fulfill needs in communities in South Africa, including building a small schoolhouse in a remote area.
They had come home from the trips wanting to do more. At one point, the conversation turned to needs not in other countries but in the Kansas City area. They didn’t have to travel abroad to make a difference.
“We have kids going to bed hungry 20 minutes away from us,” Marilyn Jahnke said. “We wanted to know what we could do here.”
She and her husband, say their children, have always been involved in community, and as daughter Sara puts it: “They lean toward helping children.”
So the Jahnkes and another couple met with members of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, who told them about a weekend food program that the congregation sponsors. After that, the Jahnkes and the small group took on 75 families at two summer programs and provided packs of food for them each week.
They soon partnered with Harvesters, delivering their packs during the school year. At first, they took on 450 students. But each time another school popped up in need of a community partner, Hands to Hearts’ load got a little bit bigger.
“At one point we were packing 800 BackSnacks in two different places,” Marilyn Jahnke said. “We had 100 volunteers.”
She spoke to Schaun Colin, an outreach minister with Westside Family Church in Lenexa, where many of the volunteers attend, and talked with him about whether they should do more.
Marilyn Jahnke remembers his words:
“My experience has been when you have more volunteers than you really need, God is telling you you need to grow.”
As they thought about that, another Jahnke daughter, Amanda Simmons, spoke with Harvesters. Simmons does a lot of the organizing and work involved with the BackSnack partnership, everything from loading tubs and delivering food bags to making sure enough volunteers are there each week.
When someone from Harvesters called and said some schools didn’t have a community partner, Simmons’ response was simple:
“We’ll take them all.”
They soon started preparing and delivering BackSnacks to more than 20 schools.
“They partner with schools on both sides of the state line,” said Ellen Feldhausen, a Harvesters spokeswoman. “And they’re often the factor that makes it possible for these schools to participate in the BackSnack program.”
Hands to Hearts’ database of volunteers has grown to 600, with many regulars coming back time after time. When the nonprofit has needed more volunteer help, it’s there.
And the Jahnkes have found that so many others share their belief that everyone should pitch in.
“As a community, I think it’s an embarrassment that there are hungry children,” Marilyn Jahnke said. “I feel like it’s a terrific embarrassment.”
Too many people think they can’t do enough to make a dent in the problem. Hands to Hearts tries to show people that’s not true, Simmons said.
“Say you come and help and you fill 10 bags,” she said. “You don’t think it’s a lot, but that’s 10 kids that wouldn’t have had enough food that weekend.”
“It is so toching to me and my family. We have a grandma (who) just past away and she loves to give. And you ramind me of her! Thank you for being thare for me! I wish I could give like you do,”
— Brenna, 9
Susan Nimrod came from De Soto with her three boys and a friend of her oldest. She knew that children often don’t have enough food but was surprised that the need is everywhere. The boys need to understand that too, she said.
“They need to know that there are people out there that need help,” Nimrod said, packing sacks of food in a rented warehouse space in Overland Park. “We have so much we should be thankful for and we need to give back.”
Her oldest, Connor, 14, cut open boxes of packaged food for other volunteers to dig into. His friend Trevor Watts, 13, worked alongside and said he didn’t realize the need some families have until the first time he volunteered recently for Hands to Hearts.
“I like the fact I’m helping,” he said.
A couple of tables down, near the front of the warehouse space, another mom worked with her 12-year-old daughter. At another table, an 11-year-old girl worked next to her father.
The Jahnkes want kids to come and help and realize that everyone can do something.
By the end of the night, volunteer drivers have come and gone. Tubs are all loaded and lists of schools are checked off. Argentine. Arrowhead. Eisenhower. Grant. Stony Point North.
In just a few hours, hundreds of kids in those schools and many others will form lines and one by one get their BackSnacks. Some kids may break open the food as soon as they get home. Others will divide it up and make it last through the week.
“You look at the bag and think some kid is going to be reaching into that Saturday morning and getting breakfast,” Sara Jahnke said, the three tables of assembly lines still cranking behind her. “It doesn’t always have to be grand acts you do.”KC Challenge: Childhood Hunger
For the fourth year, The Star is partnering with Harvesters on a virtual food drive to raise money for the area’s hungriest children.
Over the first three years, the drive raised nearly $700,000. All the money goes to Harvesters’ BackSnack program. This school year, about 19,000 students in the 26-county area get the backpacks of food every Friday.
Harvesters’ BackSnacks provide low-income children with two breakfasts, two other meals and other snacks each Friday during the school year to tide them over until they go back to school Monday.
To donate, go toFeedingKCKids.Harvesters.org.