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April 16, 2012
LAWRENCE As the home of the University of Kansas, a thriving business community and many high-paying jobs, the city of Lawrence might not seem like the kind of place where hunger is a problem. And yet, it is.
Last week, hundreds of low-income residents of Douglas County lined up to receive free food and essentials, which were donated by the Oklahoma City-based international relief agency Feed The Children. The two-truckload donation — 38,000 pounds of cargo — is enough to provide 800 families with a 25-pound box of nonperishable food, plus a 10-pound box of personal care items.
Terry Claybrook, of Wichita, is one of the agency's truck drivers. He considers it the best job he’s ever had.
"Because I get to do what Jesus said — 'Feed me, clothe me and give me water when I’m thirsty,'" said Claybrook, while using a box-cutter to open a cargo box of food.
"Well, there’s cereal. There’s spaghetti. There’s rice. There’s all kinds of canned goods. Here’s some potatoes, and green beans, spaghetti sauce for this spaghetti. Here’s some macaroni and cheese — oh yes, All-American food there. Smart Balance popcorn. Skippy peanut butter. Diced tomatoes. That sounds good!" Claybrook said.
More than food
Jeremy Farmer is in charge of Just Food, the food bank serving Douglas County. He said the personal care items may be just as important to the recipients as the food.
"You know, if you’re a family, and left over at the end of the month you have $15 to spend, what are you going to spend it on? Are you going to spend it on toothpaste, or are you going to spend it on food?" Farmer said. "There are a lot of things that one can’t get on food stamps. Toilet paper being one of them, toothpaste, laundry detergent, feminine hygiene products, those are all things that are difficult to get on food stamps. One of the things that Feed The Children does is they provide hygiene items to people."
Not only that, this distribution includes hardcover children’s books and a special treat: bags of miniature candy bars.
"There was a kid that we met with a couple of months ago who ate a chocolate bar for the first time in his life, as a 10-year-old kid. That just blew me away. I could not believe that a 10-year-old kid had never had a chocolate bar. But some of these kids, that’s their story," Farmer said.
"And so, to be able to do this — to provide food and hygiene products, to be able to provide books, to be able to provide maybe a little sweet for them, for those that never had it before — it’s just a great opportunity."
The families in need
As volunteers continue to set up for the distribution, a line of cars begins to form at the entrance to the Just Food parking lot. Soon, the line stretches for blocks. Talking to the people in these cars, nearly all are raising children — either their own or their grandchildren.
Another common denominator is that many of those driving up to receive food and supplies are at least partially disabled. Their disability checks aren’t enough to cover all their expenses. A woman who gives her name only as "Carla" said she has a rare form of bone cancer, which makes it hard for her to work. She said she’s raising her 2-year-old grandson with little help from the boy’s mother.
"We’re on a very limited income, so what we get here helps us through the month. Without it, we probably wouldn’t make it through the month, honestly." she said.
Most of these families said they can usually find something to put on the table, but sometimes it’s not enough. When that happens, the kids take priority.
As the line of cars continues to grow, Farmer gives the Just Food volunteers a few last-minute instructions.
"All right, I guess just find a pallet," Farmer said. "If there’s more than one person per pallet, just find a spot."
The process moves quickly. Half a dozen cars line up between the pallets. Volunteers on both sides load them with food and supplies. Then they drive off, and more take their place.
"We have working families coming through here," said Diane Ensminger, director of Ballard Community Services, which partners with Just Food.
"We have families who may never step foot in Just Food, who may never step foot in a food pantry — because they’re proud — but they still have a need, and they still are going hungry, and we can give them enough food to get them through until their next paycheck."
Among its other services, the Ballard Center operates two food pantries providing food to 650 families every month.
Just Food also operates a pantry of its own that serves about 5,000 people a month. So, even though Lawrence is one of the more affluent communities in Kansas, it’s still a community in need — a need that extends statewide.
In fact, the latest data indicate that one in every six children in Kansas is living in poverty. That’s more than 130,000 children statewide.
The KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and is committed to timely, objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy making environment. Find more about the News Service at khi.org/newsservice or contact us at (785) 783-2529.