As hunger rises in Missouri, Columbia works at grass-roots solutions

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Glenn Cobbins spent his Saturday delivering meals, his van loaded with to-go boxes of Thanksgiving favorites — turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy.

At the Reflections Hair Studio, Cobbins held the door as fellow volunteer, Craig Snethen, carried in boxes of food. Cobbins greeted the people inside with a warm, “How y’all doing?”

From there, it was off to the Welcome Inn to drop off more meals. As the van left the hotel parking lot, Cobbins stuck his head out the window to hail a passing cyclist. “There’s some meals in there!” he said, gesturing at the hotel.

The meals Cobbins deliveredwere from the Destiny of H.O.P.E.’s Harvest Dinner, an annual meal that’s free to the entire community.

For Cobbins and co-organizer, Judy Hubbard, building community is the central mission. But, Hubbard said, people really do need the food.

On Monday morning, Kentrell Minton, chief executive officer and executive director of the Almeta Crayton’s Community Programs’ Everybody Eats, was out grocery shopping, slightly breathless as he got ready for a big week.

Kathy Burton washes tomatoes for avocado salad Kathy Burton washes tomatoes for avocado salad in her apartment in Centralia. Burton and her son moved to Centralia three years ago after she lost her home in Clark after she was unable to pay the taxes.

He said 630 Thanksgiving food baskets had been prepared — far more than the 350 the organization had expected to distribute. Calls came in from groups all over mid-Missouri, and he was expecting anywhere from 1,100 to 1,500 people to come to the Thanksgiving meal on Thursday.

And yet the data show that food insecurity is actually a bit lower in Boone County than in other parts of Missouri. The Missouri Hunger Atlas 2016, a publication of MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, compares counties throughout Missouri. It ranks them on the prevalence of hunger and how well public programs — including food banks, food stamps and school lunch programs — are addressing it.

Boone County is one of 14 Missouri counties that have both low rates of hunger and public programs that perform well when compared to the entire state.

Overall, though, hunger is on the rise in Missouri. According to the atlas, “the percentage of households experiencing hunger in our state has more than doubled in the last decade,” an increase among the highest in the nation.

The atlas estimates that about 400,000 Missouri households had trouble getting enough food at some point during 2015, and about half of those experienced hunger.

Better, healthier food

Central to the Hunger Atlas’s analysis is the concept of “food security,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

Not just any food will make for a healthy life, though. The authors of the Hunger Atlas emphasize the link between food insecurity and chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.

Part of the problem, according to the atlas, is that unhealthy foods are cheaper and more widely available than healthy options.

Kathy Burton of Centralia faces this problem: “I want the better food, but I can’t afford it.”

Ingredients for avocado salad sit on the counter Ingredients for avocado salad sit on Kathy Burton’s counter at her home in Centralia. “If it wasn’t for the Food Bank, I know there would have been times we would have gone hungry,” Burton said. She received all of the ingredients, except for the cilantro, from the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri.

Burton, 53, lives with her 16-year-old son, Jake. While they sometimes go without meat, they always have at least canned vegetables.

It wasn’t always this way, though.

“There were times when we didn’t know where food was going to come from,” Burton said.

Back when her household had more kids, she would sometimes entertain them from breakfast to dinner to keep them from realizing they’d missed lunch.

Burton used to work, but she lost her factory job several years ago and is now receiving Social Security payments. She gets food stamps but said it’s hard to grocery shop on a fixed income. Produce is expensive.

To supplement what she can buy at the store, she makes use of Central Pantry in Columbia — the only pantry directly run by The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri. According to its most recent report, the Food Bank served over 100,000 people in their 32-county area every month in 2016. About 10,000 people per month get food from Central Pantry, according to their website.

The pantry in Columbia has the usual shelves of canned and dried foods, but it also has a section devoted to perishable foods, including fresh vegetables. While people can only take from the pantry’s main shelves once a month, they can pick out perishables any time.

Burton uses these fresh foods, and so does Brooklyn Hill, a student at Columbia College. She’s a single mom and said she usually purees vegetables for her 6-month-old son, Boston.

“Especially this month with Thanksgiving, it was awesome to go there and get cranberries and things like that,” Hill said.

Hill is plugged into other social programs around Columbia. She said she loves the Columbia Farmer’s Market and makes use of food stamp matching programs.

“That food tastes different,” she said of Farmer’s Market produce. “It tastes richer.”

Beyond the pantry

Access to fresh, healthy food may help with physical problems, but the Hunger Atlas also notes that hunger comes with social and psychological consequences.

Hill worried that people would judge her for asking for help. She has slowly shed this fear but said she tends to be preoccupied with stereotypes about single moms.

“I’m bad at asking for help,” she said.

Being able to lead a healthy life without emergency support is a big part of food security, said Bill McKelvey, a staff member at MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security.

McKelvey is project coordinator of Grow Well Missouri, a program that partners with food pantries to distribute seeds and gardening advice to Missourians.

Gardening can be a source of fresh and healthy food, he said, but there are other benefits —such as personal satisfaction in growing, canning and sharing food.

Personal gardens may not directly solve food insecurity, but they can be integral to a person’s dignity, he said. For example, Grow Well Missouri works with pantries that deliver tomato plants to elderly people. They really seem to good care for those plants, McKelvey said.

“The experience may be more important than the food (to them),” he said.

Education and simply knowing how to prepare food are also important.

Kathy Burton finds joy in cooking but said she noticed others at Central Pantry were passing up the fresh vegetables. She said she heard people ask, “What is this?” when confronted with kale.

So Burton sent recipes to the pantry. One was based on Olive Garden’s Zuppa Toscana soup.

“The only true gift I have in life is (that) I can eat something and come back and re-create it,” she said.

Burton said she made the soup using only fresh ingredients available at the pantry. She hoped she might do some good by sharing the recipe with others who get food there.

Knowledge was also key for Hill. She said cooking for herself was harder before she learned how to turn one dish into multiple meals. She remembers thinking: “Oh, I’m eating Ramen noodles. Again.”

Now, though, she cooks big batches on Sundays, making a wealth of meals for the coming week.

For the years ahead, with national programs like food stamps on the Trump administration’s chopping block, it seems likely that local programs will continue to play an important role in alleviating Columbia’s hunger.

After all, it’s the community that matters most to people like Cobbins and Hubbard of Destiny of H.O.P.E.

Cobbins said he doesn’t judge success by the number of people they serve a meal. The people who are supposed to be there, will be, he said.

When asked whether she sees the Harvest Dinner as part of a solution to community hunger, Hubbard said: “(It) feeds a person this day.”

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed

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