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With Need Surging, Kansas City Food Banks Are Feeding People And Hope

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
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Lauren Weinberg, right, the Missouri Food Pantry Assistance Coordinator at Jewish Family Services, collects vegetables and other food items for a waiting client outside the agency's offices on Dec. 23.

The busiest places in Kansas City this holiday may be our food banks.

Used to be that Philip Hooser, a Kansas City performer and writer, witnessed the performing arts as unifying the community.

Hooser hasn’t worked since his foot was amputated last year after complications from diabetes. That, coupled with the nearly complete shutdown of Kansas City's performing arts because of the pandemic, led him to get food and other necessities from the Theatre Community Fund of Kansas City, currently being housed in the Unicorn Theatre.

Receiving food is one thing, Hooser says. But witnessing how the organization has unified people brings tears.

“It’s usually ‘Hey, let’s put on a show!’," Hooser says. "Now it’s ‘Hey, let’s keep people alive. Let’s keep people hoping.’“

The confluence of the pandemic, the accompanying economic crisis, social unrest and the holidays is testing the resilience of local food banks and pantries. Established organizations and some newer ones are working harder to meet those needs.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Volunteers at Harvesters sort donated food inside the organization's warehouse on Dec. 22. Harvesters moved more than 7 million pounds of food in November -- its largest volume ever.

“Before COVID, we would do roughly four million pounds (of food) per month,” said Brad Martin, Harvesters director of operations. “But last month we came in at over seven million pounds for the first time ever.”

While Harvesters has been keeping up with the increased demand and the large volume required to service its many agencies, other food pantries are focused on a smaller scale.

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Lucas Cuny-Mertz/KCUR 89.3
Brad Thomas, treasurer and co-volunteer coordinator for the Theatre Community Fund, organizes canned food inside the Unicorn Theatre where TCF has set up a food pantry.

Pantries like Theatre Community Fund, which opened in October, and Jewish Family Services receive food from Harvesters, but they also rely on donations from smaller organizations and individuals.

The struggle is not necessarily finding the food or materials to donate. The food pantries report a strong surge in giving. But simply keeping up with the volume of people seeking help or getting people to show up is sometimes a problem.

Jo Hickey, the Jewish Family Services Food Pantry Director, says they have doubled the number of families they’re serving during the pandemic. That has led them, at times, to struggle to return calls or for their clients to not respond to food requests in a timely fashion.

One of the things she says they are focused on though is breaking down barriers to service — especially reducing the stigma of making that first phone call to get food or other support.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Sandy Callahan, a volunteer with the Jewish Family Service food pantry loads up a client's car with fresh fruit, vegetables and non-perishable food on Dec. 23.

Some organizations, like Jewish Family Services (JFS), offer more than food. JFS can connect clients to counseling, health care, or other services.

“We try to care for the whole family,” Hickey says. “If we’re not the right agency to serve them we will make that referral to someone who can.”

Ultimately the mission of the pantries and the food bank boil down to opening their doors to families and individuals who have lost their footing and need to find a place that will fill a gap for the short term or even longer.

Brad Thomas, treasurer and co-volunteer coordinator for the Theatre Community Fund, says the community is a generous source. They’ve provided a substantial supply of food and dry good like toiletries — even pet food — for theatre workers and anyone who shows up.

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Lucas Cuny-Mertz/KCUR 89.3
The food pantry set up by the Theatre Community Fund also offers dry goods and other hygiene products in addition to canned food and pet food.

The pivot from performing is not that much different from finding and offering things that people need or use, he says.

“It’s pretty much the same service. With acting you are on stage giving a show, entertaining someone,” Thomas explains. “With this, we’re entertaining the soul by feeding them.”

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