Although Champaign County is geographically surrounded by some of the highest agricultural production in the country, hunger is still an issue facing many families in our area. In 2016, Feeding America estimated that approximately 32,340 individuals in Champaign County are food insecure. Five years ago, Feeding Our Kids co-founders Jenelle Keene and Ann Kirkland recognized this need as moms of school-aged kids. Keene was chaperoning a field trip to the Decatur Zoo when she noticed a young kindergartener insisting on taking home applesauce and animal crackers. The young girl told Keene that the applesauce was to bring home for her toddler sister. They both remember thinking that a young child should not have to deal with adult issues such as caretaking for a sibling or providing food for the family. Kirkland and Keene couldn’t sit back knowing this and not doing something. And so, after many meetings with the community and schools, Feeding our Kids was created.
Five years ago, the backpack food program was started by sending food home on weekends to 18 children in need. Last year, they reported sending food home to 950 children.
Feeding Our Kids has a presence in nearly all of the pre-k, elementary, and middle schools in Champaign County. The students remain anonymous and are selected (with parental permission) to receive the service based on need and identified circumstantial cases by the schools’ social workers. Every Wednesday, groups of volunteers pack take-home food bags for the kids at Champaign Church of Christ, a crucial donor and supporter of Feeding Our Kids.
The food bags include eight individual-sized items: an entrée item, snacks, a beverage, fruit, and a breakfast item. The menu doesn’t remain stagnant; part of Kirkland and Keene’s mission is to provide kid-friendly and nutritious foods that the kids will want to eat each week. They recognize and respect kids’ food choices and believe that kids deserve to eat food that they enjoy and are excited to eat. This includes providing safe and quality food by carefully inspecting every expiration date and providing allergy-free options for special diets. Every Friday, volunteers deliver the food bags by the bin-loads to the schools, where the school social workers or other staff will discreetly distribute the bags.
Food insecurity can affect anyone at any given period of time. Whether it’s a family struggling with low incomes or unemployment, or parents having to work multiple jobs and not being home to prepare meals, anyone at any time can potentially face a time when a little extra help is needed. And so, it’s important that we all give a little help. Lori Rogers, board member and volunteer for Feeding Our Kids, highlights the importance of getting involved. Whether it’s giving your time, money, or voice, we all can find an hour or two to help better our community. Feeding Our Kids is actively looking for volunteers, especially a Volunteer Coordinator. Volunteer board members with particular expertise in the areas of data entry, graphic design, or fundraising are also especially currently in need. Above all else, Kirkland recommends to find what you’re passionate about in your community and to not be afraid to reach out and offer help. For Kirkland, Keene, and Rogers, that passion was clear: Feed the kids. Kirkland says it best.
“I believe in the kids of our community. I want them to know that no matter what’s going on politically with the school district, and nationally with what’s going on with the adults in their lives, that we believe that they can do amazing things. I don’t want food insecurity to be the thing that stops them and blocks them from finding their potential. I don’t want food insecurity to be the thing that stops them from seeing that out and becoming the best doctor or philosopher or politician or teacher that they can absolutely be. If a small bag of food keeps them going every week and encourages them on the weekend and helps them get back to school and be jazzed to be there. Even if it’s just one kid.”
After 5 successful years, what’s next for Feeding Our Kids? Rogers simply said, "to be here as long as there’s need." There are currently four schools not being served in Champaign County, and they’d love to reach those schools. As far as expanding outside of the county or outside of the targeted age group, that remains unknown. Feeding Our Kids doesn’t intend to be the end-all solution to food insecurity for the entire population, rather fill an identified, specific need. There are many organizations all working together in harmony in the area, such as Rose Feeds the Children in Danville, Wesley pantries on college campuses, Eastern Illinois Foodbank for entire families, and the Hope Center in Urbana. These are just some of the many resources available to individuals or families facing food insecurity in the area. When Feeding our Kids receives an inquiry or request that they are unable to meet, they are glad to connect individuals with the help and resources they need in their area.
Communities are only as strong as the people who make up it. Champaign County is indefinitely better for having Feeding Our Kids a part of it as a strong and unwavering resource of support and hope for the next generation.
Photos from Facebook, used with permission from Feeding Our Kids