In this week’s Service Spotlight, Harvesters‘ communications manager Sarah Biles takes a few minutes to discuss the mission and passion behind one of the largest community food networks in the Midwest.

Q: Why is Harvesters a worthwhile cause for the community of Kansas City?

A: Our mission is to help feed the hungry today and help eliminate hunger in the future. We certainly can’t do that by ourselves. We have a service area of 26 counties in Northwest Missouri and

Northeast Kansas and in order for us to reach the maximum number of people possible who need our help we need volunteers.

We have about 5,000 volunteers a month that we utilize and without them, we obviously would not be able to do what we do. That equates to about 86 full-time employees, which is almost dou ble our current staff. So if we didn’t have that we obviously would not have the resources to put towards other things like food.

A lot of the food we get comes in on huge palettes or on a truckload and it’s not in a state that can go quickly out to individuals or families. So we utilize volunteers a lot to take that food, repackage it into smaller portions that can be easily accessed and used by those that need it.

Q: Who receives the food that Harvesters is distributing?

A: About 37 percent of those that we serve are children and about 8 percent are seniors, so nearly half are what we call our communities most vulnerable citizens. The other half goes to mostly families, but individuals as well.

The important thing is that hunger is everywhere, not just in a pocket of a community that is off in the distance. We estimate that we feed about 1 in 8 people in a community, so more than likely those people could be your neighbor, someone at your church, school or work.

More than likely it’s somebody you know and you don’t even realize it because a lot of people are embarrassed to admit that they are in need of assistance. They don’t want it to be open knowledge to the public that they need help.

Q: What area is Harvesters’ biggest need for volunteer assistance?

A: We can always use volunteers on a daily basis in our volunteer outreach center, which is where the large volumes of food we collect come to. That is where the large barrels of food from the grocery stores and businesses around the city go. Whatever anyone throws in there we have to get that sorted and redistributed out to our agencies and food pantries that work directly with the clients.

They are receiving that food, whether it’s a case of green beans or 10 packages of potatoes, so we have to sort and repackage it out so they can easily take it back to their pantries and then clients. That requires quite a bit of manpower.

Everyday Tuesday through Saturday we are here working and also evenings, which provides a great opportunity for those volunteers that work during the day. So Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday evenings we are open at our outreach center, as well as Saturdays, for those wishing to volunteer.

We also do the Backsnack program. We provide backpacks of food for kids on the weekends. We are currently sending out about 18,000 a week, so you can imagine how much food and labor it takes to get those all filled.

Every year we are growing that program and by the end of the year, it could be 20,000 backpacks that will need to be filled.

Q: What does the future hold for Harvesters?

A: The Backsnack program is one of those programs that continue to grow and we know there is a greater need than we are able to meet currently. However, we have to be able to sustain that funding and we want to sustain that funding every year so we don’t have to come back one year and cut from it.

So we have to grow that in a responsible way. Every year we try to grow it by two to three thousand a week. Our general distribution as well; we always have goal to increase that year after year because in that 26-county service area, we have identified there are about 375,000 people that we call food insecure.

What that means is that they may have food today, but they may not know where their next meal is coming from tomorrow. We haven’t begun, unfortunately, to meet that need.

And even though the economy is recovering at a slow pace, it is not recovering to the degree where it was before. People are not having the same amount of jobs before and they are often lower paying jobs, so they are still struggling to make ends-meat.

Q: For you personally, what makes Harvesters special?

A: I’ve been doing public relations in the non-profit world for about 13 years now and what I like about working here is that everyone is so committed to the mission, as well as our volunteers. You can just see the passion in talking or working with them that they have to better their community.

They realize that even by helping one person they are making a difference in creating a stronger and healthier community. So just being apart of that effort to make a difference is quite rewarding.


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