Published December 27th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 6.7% of all Americans used a food pantry at some point to help fill the gaps when feeding their households.
Food pantries and kitchens are vital to those who don’t qualify for federal food assistance programs, can’t stretch their benefits through the month, or just need a little help here and there.
Perhaps the widespread benefits and uses of these services is what led one curiousKC reader to ask: “What are the locations of food pantries and how easy are they to access for people without transportation? Or (people) who work multiple jobs?”
Put simply, how accessible are pantries, both in terms of location and hours for working people?
In addition to answering our reader question, we’ve compiled a list of resources for those in need of assistance. And for those of you looking to help out, we’ll let you know the best ways to get involved.
Karen Siebert, the public policy and advocacy adviser for Harvesters Community Food Network, said the food bank pays close attention to the spread and availability of pantries in its network.
At one point, Harvesters placed a moratorium on new pantries in a certain area as it already had a lot, while other areas were lacking access.
“What we’re doing is we’re taking food from where there’s access to where there’s need, and there are just so many pieces to that system to make that work that we have to navigate … to get the food that’s available to the people who need it,” Siebert said.
Even with the large number of support organizations in the area, it can still be difficult for some people to get food when it’s available.
Unreliable transportation and busy work schedules also can make it hard to get to a pantry during service hours.
There might be a pantry right next to a family’s home, but if they work while it’s open, it doesn’t do much good. Moreover, if a pantry is open when someone isn’t working, but it’s more than walking distance away and the individual is without reliable transportation, they’re also out of luck.
Emily Brown, founder and CEO of Food Equality Initiative, noticed this problem as she started the organization.
Originally, it operated in a pantry style. But Brown saw that transportation was a barrier to the individuals the initiative served. With the onset of the pandemic, Brown and her team expedited the direct-to-door program.
“When all of our other community partners were moving to drive thru distribution, we went straight to direct-to-door. It has been extremely effective and efficient and our utilization has jumped like 240% and we continue to have just a significant demand for our program. To the point where we have a waitlist both locally and nationally,” Brown said.
Skye Dawn, a student at Park University and SNAP recipient, said the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card is accepted by Amazon, and other delivery services, for food purchases, which is a great option for those without transportation.
Beside transportation barriers at pantries, Dawn also has been turned away for not having the right paperwork or meeting the requirements of the pantry.
“A lot of them … will only see you if you’re in X zip code, and if you can bring all of the income paperwork, and your social security and all this information,” Dawn said. “Some food pantries will only let you go one time a month, but if you go to that one, then you can’t go to another food pantry in their network, and you end up you end up using so much gas and time (that) it is so impractical to use a food pantry.”
Some pantries and kitchens will serve folks, no questions asked. Hilah Mae, a social worker with Tri-County Mental Health Services, said others have to follow certain protocols to receive state funding.
“A lot of those food pantries that are supported through the state … have income guidelines, and have requirements and have hours that aren’t really necessarily conducive to people who are trying to raise families and work and things like that,” Mae said.
To be clear, food pantries do great work and do their best to serve those who need help. But for pantries to eliminate the barriers that some people face in using them, it requires better funding and more volunteers.
Mae said one of the best ways to get involved is to volunteer, not only because the charitable sector needs volunteers, but because of the associated learning opportunities.
“I think when people have a chance to actually see face to face what’s going on it really helps you kind of understand that, hey, the stereotypes that we have – the ‘welfare queen’ idea – is incredibly wrong,” Mae said.
Sue Fenske, executive director of Nourish KC, said the 25-30 volunteers she sees a day are vital to the Kansas City Community Kitchen’s mission and they also create a sense of community at the dine-in kitchen.
Here, volunteers not only serve, but also sit down and eat lunch with the visitors.
“So our volunteers sit at a table with someone that maybe they wouldn’t ordinarily meet,” Fenske said. “I think it’s been a really eye-opening experience for them to realize that everyone that they meet isn’t someone ‘other.’ They’re just people … It just builds a sense of community here in a way that (the volunteers) ordinarily don’t have an opportunity to experience.”
That’s direct feedback Fenske gets from her volunteers who come back again and again.
Nourish KC can also facilitate groups of volunteers for office events, families or community groups looking to give back.
Another way to volunteer, and get the whole family involved, is to partake in a farm gleaning with After the Harvest. Gleaning is the process of picking the food out of the fields that gets left behind during a farmer’s harvest.
Lisa Ousley, executive director for After the Harvest, the volunteer work is not only rewarding, but also just an enjoyable activity.
“We have volunteers who come back time and again because it’s so much fun,” Ousley said. “You are in a beautiful farm field or orchard on a lovely day, you pick apples for two and a half hours or something like that, and then you’re done. And if you bring a team of 15 people (you) can pick 1,500 pounds of apples.”
After the Harvest then helps to distribute the collected food to Harvesters, or directly to food pantries in the area, to reduce farm waste and ensure pantries have fresh produce.
Another way you can help is to donate items during food drives, directly to a pantry, or in collection bins.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when donating items:
Financial donations also are always welcome and appreciated by food banks, pantries and kitchens. These organizations can make each dollar stretch further as they buy in bulk and are tax exempt.
“Donating money has been a really important thing for us this last year,” Siebert said. “The food supply chain issues were significant for us at the outset, and we weren’t getting the (food) donations that we needed to meet the need, and so we had to go out and purchase food.”
Distributing and rescuing food also comes at a cost, which financial donations help to cover.
“We like to talk about how sometimes we’re purchasing food, but also what we need are the resources to go and get donated food,” Siebert said.
Finally, many organizations in the charitable sector rely on government funding in order to serve their communities.
For this reason, leaders encourage community members to educate themselves on food resources and laws, and to advocate for their improvement.
Brown with Food Equality Initiative said involvement could mean calling legislators about the Kansas food tax, or simply being aware of changes coming to the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which informs school lunch programs.
“I always encourage people to, you know, get educated and learn about these issues,” Brown said. “I think the more the public understands, and can take a step into the shoes of their neighbors and have a greater understanding of just the myriad of challenges, or barriers, that exist, I think it’s key.”
Lisa Ross with the SNAP-Education program through Kansas State University Extension said folks can help by reaching out to their local legislators and reminding them of the importance of food assistance programs, which are the primary safety net against food insecurity.
“This (SNAP) is a very, very important program, and it continues to need to be funded, and it needs to be funded appropriately, and probably even more,” Ross said. “Even if (someone is) not our audience, they can be an advocate for the low resource audience.”
It’s important these programs are at their best because, as Fenske with Nourish KC said, anyone can become food insecure.
“One of the things we really tried to dispel myth-wise is that this only happens to ‘other people,’ that people who are hungry or food insecure are not in the middle class, or are not in neighborhoods of wealth,” Fenske said. “That’s just not the case. Any family can find themselves in either long-term or temporary situations where they just don’t have the resources that they need to feed their families.”
To donate to or find volunteer opportunities with any of the organizations above, please visit their websites.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Hi I just watched your food insecurity piece and I was so completely blown away at how well done it is. Nothing was cliché, so professionally produced, fair and accurate and really helpful. Bravo!