From hungry kids, heartfelt thanks

That first story more than three years ago described a little boy whose mom couldn’t afford milk for his morning cereal.Times were tight for the family. And his coming to school hungry, experts said, illustrated a much bigger problem across the two states.The story, really, was about numbers. How Missouri ranked fifth and Kansas 12th for kids living in what the government calls “food insecure” homes. It’s a wonky term that basically means families who don’t always know where they’ll get their next meal.But for readers, the story was only about the boy, and kids like him.Before I had the chance to read through emails from people wanting to buy him and his family milk and other food, The Star’s then-publisher, Mark Zieman, sent a simple question.“What more can we do?” he asked.The thought then was that the newspaper could educate readers on childhood hunger. Explain how even though we live in a heartland full of farmers and strong communities, teachers and nurses and after-school program leaders see families every day struggling to put food on the table.Tell the story of hunger through the kids. Through the teachers and school nurses who stash granola bars and crackers in their desks for a hungry kid. Through the manager of a low-income housing complex who every day saw children gobble down food after school because that might be all they had until the next morning at school.Within weeks, through the help of Harvesters, we had figured out the answer to Zieman’s question. At least in the short term.We hit the KC Challenge’s first goal of $25,000 in about 24 hours. And readers only continued to contribute to the virtual food drive. That first year, more than $235,000. In 2011, readers gave $310,000, and last year nearly $150,000. All the money goes to BackSnack, a Harvesters program that provides weekend food packs of two breakfasts, two other meals and snacks, enough to tide kids over until Monday morning.From that first year to now, it’s the stories from the children and their families that strike a chord. You don’t believe it, readers told us, until you see it, know someone struggling, hear it straight from those who are up against it.Like the single mom who had to work three jobs to pay the bills, clothe her kids and buy food. Some nights, she said, she couldn’t afford to put meat on the table. All she wanted when we talked to her three years ago was to feed her kids pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans.A teenager on the Kansas side admitted she was too proud to say her family didn’t always have enough food. But through her high school and Harvesters, she learned that it’s OK to ask for help. Before long, she was luring her friends to a mobile food pantry to get food for their families.Then there was the little girl from Warrensburg, Mo. Two years ago, she asked Santa to bring her food for Christmas. She wanted a puppy too, but food was high on the list.Readers responded.“It’s heartbreaking to realize that so many teens, in addition to elementary schoolchildren, go to school hungry and can’t afford school lunches either,” one reader wrote.Said another: “What more can we do?”In the past three years, as we’ve been in schools and homes, in food pantries and inside the offices of school nurses, we’ve learned what more everyone is doing. Anti-hunger advocates and other experts say it’s helping.So do the kids.“It makes me feel special,” one fifth-grader in Kansas City said last month of her BackSnack. She has been getting the weekly packs of food for three years.She also had a little message for those who provide the BackSnacks, who deliver them to her school and make sure she has food over the weekend. It’s a message not just from her, but echoed by others.The girl with the Santa letter. The teen who gets food from Harvesters’ mobile food pantry. The boy in the Northland with no milk.“I would tell them to keep doing this,” the girl said. “Families need it. Families need the food when they can’t afford to go to the store.”

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 almost $700,000. All the money goes to Harvesters’ BackSnack program, which provides 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.

If you’d like to give, go to www.feedingkckids.harvesters.org. You can donate in a loved one’s name, with reader dedications published in The Star’s Christmas edition. The deadline for dedications is 5 p.m. Monday.

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