Longtime Harvesters leader Karen Haren is leaving

In Kansas City, thousands of men, women and children go without a meal every day.

Hard to believe? Just ask Karen Haren, who has led the fight against hunger in Kansas City for 14 years as executive president and CEO of Harvesters-The Community Food Network.

But now she is stepping down.

Haren is retiring after a 27-year career with Harvesters, previously serving on the board of directors and as director of administration and finance. In her time as CEO, Haren has seen Harvesters grow, including opening another distribution center in Topeka.

Haren will be succeeded by Valerie Nicholson-Watson, who stepped down from her role as president and CEO at the Niles Home for Children to lead Harvesters.

Gail Meriweather, the chairwoman of Harvesters’ board, said Haren helped turn the organization around when she took over.

“She’s absolutely committed to feeding the hungry and helping our community,” Meriweather said, “especially the kids.”

In 2011, Feeding America named Harvesters its food bank of the year.

Haren said she was drawn to the organization, which collects food and distributes it to more than 600 agencies in 26 counties, because of the challenge it faced in feeding the hungry.

“People don’t necessarily recognize the presence of hunger in our community, and it’s pretty extensive,” Haren said. “One in eight people in the community faces food insecurity. So that’s 378,000 (people) in those 26 counties.”

Haren has also helped start programs such as the BackSnack program, which gives kids food to take home over the weekend. Haren said they realized kids were leaving school Friday and not getting enough food until they came back to school Monday. She said one in five kids has food insecurity.

It’s that kind of community engagement that Haren has championed to help Harvesters grow.

“Harvesters has been a leader,” she said, “and nationally recognized as a food bank that is innovative, that does really strong programming and that has been really effective in engaging the community.”

Haren’s commitment to the mission won’t stop because she is leaving. She said that she still plans to donate regularly and that Harvesters will always be a part of her.

“We’ll miss Karen as a person,” Meriweather said. “I’m not really concerned about the operations because we’ve got a fantastic strategic plan. And putting Valerie in that leadership role makes me that much more confident.”

Haren hired Valerie Nicholson-Watson in 1999 as director of community services. Nicholson-Watson then went on to serve on the board in 2007 when she went to the Niles Home for Children.

“I have always been interested in children’s and women’s issues and really just the human condition,” Nicholson-Watson said. “I’ve always enjoyed domestic hunger relief. It’s a bigger organization with a bigger reach.”

She said the decision to move to Harvesters was a tough choice because she loved working with both organizations. But now that the position is hers, she wants to continue to raise awareness of hunger and healthy eating.

Her first day as CEO of Harvesters is Monday.

“Karen is tremendous. She’s led that organization and it’s been stellar,” Nicholson-Watson said. “This is a new era with new challenges, and I’m going to try and do as good a job as Karen in leading Harvesters.

“Shoot, I’m gonna try to do better.”