SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — This week, KOLR10 News begins another Courageous Conversation about a problem that continues to plague us here in the Ozarks. We’re talking about childhood hunger.
Southwest Missouri is known to have higher rates of children going hungry than in other parts of the state. But for the first time — we’ve learned the situation is improving.
Stop by a Boys and Girls Club in Springfield and you’ll always see, and hear, lots of action.
“Today we have 226. So it varies between 160 and 225 kids,” says Niki Kiruki, Unit Director at the Boys & Girls Club.
On this day at the Musgrave Unit, the kids are enjoying an afternoon snack of fresh apples and milk. It’s food donated by Ozarks Food Harvest, and it’s much needed.
“I think that if we didn’t have this food program here, we do breakfast, lunch and a snack, that some of our kids wouldn’t get fed,” Kiruki says.
Most of the children at Boys and Girls Clubs go to schools where they receive free or reduced-cost lunches. And for some, the club is their lifeline for food.
“For me, it’s hearbreaking to see a child come to the club that’s hungry,” Kiruki says. “Or you know over the weekend that they may not get food. When they are here, I hope they are happy and being able to feed them is a part of that.”
“Childhood hunger in the Ozarks is much higher than in the rest of the country and in other parts of the state,” says Bart Brown of Ozarks Food Harvest.
Brown is executive director at Ozarks Food Harvest — a non profit that serves as the central food distribution center in the Ozarks. 280 non profit groups rely on Ozarks Food Harvest to help feed hungry families. The demand continues to increase.
“Pre-recession, we were serving just under 100,000 people every year within southwest Missouri. After the recession, that number grew to more than a quarter million. And it hasn’t gone down,” Brown says.
But one number has gone down when it comes to hungry children.
“For the first time, I can tell you that we’re making progress. And part of that has to do with a concentrated effort by Ozarks Food Harvest and our board of directors to really infuse a lot of cash and food into southwest Missouri over the past 5 years,” says Brown.
Brown says it used to be 1 in 4 children went hungry in the Ozarks. Now, that number is one in 5…or 20-percent.
“One in 5 children going hungry is still to high. It’s still a little bit higher than the rest of the country. And we still have higher child poverty rates in southwest Missouri than the rest of the state,” Brown stresses.
But one way Ozarks Food Harvest is helping combat the problem is through it’s weekend backpack program.
It provides thousands of weekend food kits each year to area schools. Kids identified by the school receive 6 nutritious meals to take home for the weekend.
“What we know from teachers is it keeps kids performing well in school. They come to school on Monday morning ready to learn instead of desperate for a meal with hunger pains in their tummy,” says Brown.
The Boys and Girls Club has also started serving dinner earlier during the school year, just so more kids get an evening meal who might otherwise go home to an empty dinner table.
“For us, our mission is to make sure that the kids who need us most are served. And that’s a great opportunity for us to serve the kids that need us,” says Kiruki.
Bart Brown at Ozarks Food Harvest says the weekend backpack program is the most expensive for his agency because they have to buy specialized food for kids and can’t rely on food donations.
Next month the agency will partner with Kevin and Liz on 105.9 KGBX Radio to raise money for the backpack program through its annual Hunger-Thon.
Hunger-Thon has raised more than $1 million for Ozarks Food Harvest over the last 19 years.