Tobi Fockler, left, and Carol Jobe, both of Sedalia, new volunteers to the Open Door Soup Kitchen, prep plastic utensils for those who will be eating lunch at the new facility in March 2018.

According to a new report from the University of Missouri, roughly 865,000 people across the state are food insecure, including many from Pettis County. 

Hunger is a very real problem for many Pettis County residents, with many factors contributing to the issue like a lack of education on food, transportation, or lack of financial resources. A group of area organizations has banded together to try and address these needs and help those who are hungry in the area. 

According to the 2019 Missouri Hunger Atlas, Pettis County ranked high in need and performance when it comes to food insecurity. This means the county has a high need when it comes to food insecurity and hunger needs, but the county also has high performance ratings and people are taking advantage of the resources available. One of the groups working to tackle hunger in Pettis County is the United Way Hunger Coalition. 

The coalition was formed in 2017 after United Way of Pettis County Executive Director Staci Harrison saw a need in the community. The coalition is made up of faith-based organizations, service organizations, educators, and employers. 

“The United Way office had a lot of people calling, communicating they were hungry and we knew that we had a lot of food resources in Pettis County…” Harrison said. “We had a lot of options for people to get nourishment from food and so I had presented this difficulty to our board of directors and so we decided to do a hunger coalition.”

Harrison said the coalition wanted to look at barriers keeping people from accessing food. Members used surveys and interviews to pinpoint key areas that were contributing to hunger in the county. 

“We know we have a lot of food resources in our community, but what are the barriers for people to be able to access that food?” Harrison said. “Like anything one organization can’t do it on its own. So being able to bring people together to identify those barriers was important. Then you’re getting perspective as well from children all the way to our elderly on why they’re hungry.”

The top indications identified by the coalition were transportation, searching for food resources, lack of training, a lack of financial resources, and basic housing needs not being met. Harrison said many of the individuals the coalition spoke with didn’t have appliances, either because they couldn’t afford one or didn’t have an appliance in working order.

An area the coalition has made a lot of headway on has been training and education on food. The coalition has been working with trainers to offer classes at various organizations around the county. Coalition organizations are identifying individuals who would be the best fit for the training and are giving them a spot in a training. The coalition has a schedule from November 2019 to November 2020 to do the classes. 

“It’s food budgeting, food prep, and food preparing,” Harrison said of the classes. “They’re talking about nutrition. Why they’re going through this process, talking about safety. There’s just a lot of different lessons that are being built into an hour and a half.”

The trainings will also utilize recipes based off of food pantry and WIC items. The food is being provided by the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri, which provided almost 1.3 million pounds of food to Pettis County in 2018. Attendees will also receive an electric skillet, a bowl, a strainer, utensils, and dishcloths and towels. 

Harrison, Open Door Director of Development Tim Postuma, and Open Door Executive Director Amanda Davis all agreed hunger is not isolated and usually is a symptom of other things going on in a person’s life. They said they believe those other factors contribute to Pettis County’s high need when it comes to hunger and those factors need to be addressed too.

“We know that hunger is not isolated,” Harrison said. “Usually when somebody is hungry they have other needs and then there’s other traumas within the life that has resulted in the situation that family or individual finds themselves in. It’s not just addressing just the hunger but it’s looking at the whole person. So you're looking at job skills, you're looking at health, to include mental health, and being able to help that person take their next step in their life of sustainability.”

Mental health is one of the largest factors when it comes to hunger, according to Harrison and Davis. They believe breaking the stigma that mental illness and substance abuse are character flaws is important in being able to address the issue. 

“It’s like a domino effect,” Harrison explained. “You’ve got the mental illness or the substance abuse and those go hand in hand. Then they’re not able to function within their responsibilities. So they aren't able to keep a job, so they’re not able to afford a vehicle. Then they can’t get to where they need to get their basic needs met.”

Harrison, Davis and Postuma all believe everyone can be part of the solution in tackling hunger whether it’s volunteering, donating food to Open Door, or donating items for the classes like bowls or slotted spoons to the Open Door Thrift Shop. The issue is also a year round issue. 

“One thing I’ve seen about the community is the community is very strong about giving around holiday times but summertime it seems to lack,” Davis said. “Hungry knows no holiday so if we could educate even people that are giving to give all year round, it would help...Hunger affects everybody at some point in time. Or it affects somebody you know: a mom, a dad, a grandma, a grandpa, everybody.”

While the coalition is making progress, the group still has a lot of work to do and members are excited to continue with their collaborative efforts. 

“We are high performing as a county,” Harrison said. “I think it’s because of the relationships that have been built between organizations. There is a high need there and it’s not just hunger but it’s that whole person. So it’s looking at the trauma, then you're looking at the mental illness and substance abuse. Then sometimes just bad things happen and if you don't have a support network around you it’s really hard to get on your feet. I think it’s just continuing to work collaboratively as a community.”

The Open Door Service Center is at 111 W. 6th St. and can be contacted at 

660-827-1613. The thrift store is at 612 S. Hancock Ave. The United Way can be contacted at 660-826-2980.

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