OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – At United Community Services of Johnson County, where officials track monthly food stamp figures, they’ve seen a near doubling of the county’s rolls during the economic downturn of the past four years.
And with 23,000 of the county’s residents on food stamps, chances are good that there are many more needy people who either are ineligible for the assistance or simply have not applied, said United Community’s Executive Director Karen Wulfkuhle.
“The total number who may be in need of occasional food assistance, or even regular food assistance, creates a large demand on all the (food) pantries in the county,” she said.
Wulfkuhle and other social service advocates are applauding the move by Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City to expand its food assistance program in a major way.
Officials at the agency, which also serves non-Jewish clients, said they expect to open a pantry next week at the Jewish Community Center campus, 5801 W. 115th St., and at the Missouri office in south Kansas City, 9233 Ward Parkway.
Soon, the two sites combined could be serving approximately 600 individuals per month, said Don Goldman, executive director of Jewish Family Services.
In the past, the agency has provided boxes of food to approximately 100 Jewish households per month. It serves about 5,000 clients a year, Goldman said. About 40 percent of the requests it receives are for emergency assistance, such as help with rent and food.
Before the recession, Goldman said, the agency fielded about 40 emergency assistance calls per month. But it took more than six times that amount last month, he said, and the volume has stayed steadily above 200 calls per month during the last three years.
With so many of those clients needing food assistance, Goldman said, the board and staff wanted to do more than it had been.
“Food is a really basic need,” he said. “How could we not be doing that?”
So, in about six months and on a $75,000 budget, the agency is about to get into the pantry business. A food drive at seven synagogues during the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur yielded more than 10,600 pounds of food.
“It was more food than we expected,” Goldman said, “but that does not mean we won’t use every bit of it.”
Preparing the pantries for launch has not come without glitches, he said, including the shattering of a glass bottle of sesame oil that left a room smelling like a Chinese restaurant for a while.
Goldman said it had been rewarding to see the pantry galvanize volunteer support within the Jewish community, which has turned out to help sort the food.
Jewish Family Services is now part of Harvesters – The Community Food Network, a food bank that serves more than 620 nonprofit agencies in a 26-county service area.
Harvesters spokeswoman Ellen Feldhausen said the expansion by Jewish Family Services is “absolutely an asset to the network” and lauded the amount of food the agency had collected.
“I think that is a tremendous start for them,” she said.
Meanwhile, she said, the new pantry sites would help Harvesters highlight the fact that hunger exists throughout the region, even in an affluent area such as Johnson County.
“We understand there are hungry people in Johnson County,” Feldhausen said. “They will see many people coming to their doors.”
Another outlet, she said, would be welcome as existing pantries struggle to stay stocked.
Goldman said it appeared that the length and depth of the recession was starting to tap out donors to existing pantries.
Even people on food stamps need the pantries, Wulfkuhle said, since that government assistance generally only provides enough for families to cover about three weeks of their monthly food needs.