Members of Hays High School Future Farmers of America got into the giving spirit Saturday morning, working to help feed the hungry in Ellis County.
The FFA chapter teamed with The Outreach Program, an Iowa-based non-profit organization dedicated to providing food, safe water, medical care and education in the United States and around the world.
“In the United States, one in every five kids is food insecure, meaning that at some point during the week, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Rick McNary, vice president of public and private partnerships for The Outreach Program.
HHS senior Laura Montgomery was the driving force for Saturday’s event. She and four other FFA members and FFA advisor Curt Vajnar attended the national leadership conference in Washington in summer 2015, where they helped about 200 other FFA members package 60,000 meals with The Outreach Program.
Montgomery wanted to bring the program to Hays.
“I worked on it last year, but it didn’t happen,” Montgomery said. “I told myself it would happen my senior year and it’s finally going, and we have lots of good help,” she said.
Vajnar liked the idea, but didn’t want to jump in blindly.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to just do it. You’ve got to figure out if there’s a need and a reason.’ So we did some surveying and figured out there was a need,” he said.
According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap project, 413,560 people in Kansas are considered food insecure, terminology used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to indicate a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life. That includes 4,150 people in Ellis County, a little over 14 percent of the population.
Montgomery applied for grants, receiving $1,000 from Midwest Energy and $500 from the national FFA Hunger Heroes program. The HHS FFA chapter also gave $500 for the project.
The macaroni and cheese packaged by the students on Saturday will stay in Ellis County, Montgomery said. They will be delivered to St. Joseph Catholic Church and the Community Assistance Center food pantries, Mary Elizabeth Maternity Home and other programs. Some of the packages will remain at Hays High for students in need.
McNary and Vajnar stressed the learning opportunity the project also offered.
“It teaches responsibility and the purpose of agriculture and what happens with the product when it’s done,” Vajnar said. He said the HHS FFA chapter helps with local food pantries two or three times a year.
Projects like this help people understand hunger is a problem that can be solved, McNary said.
“The beauty of especially what FFA does is they are the solutions to long-term feeding of the world,” McNary said. “Agricultural production has to increase by 75 percent in the next 35 years to feed 9 billion people. These students here today are an incredible part of solving our world’s food systems and providing food security.”
As students gathered around a table to learn the assembly procedures, McNary told them when he was a child, his mother would plop spinach on his plate and tell him to eat it because there were starving children in Africa.
“That’s the typical messaging around hunger is that it’s a big problem, it’s over there, and there’s not really anything you can do about it,” he said. “We’re changing the message about hunger.”
Several dozen students, along with some parents and siblings, formed assembly lines at three tables, filling a bag with dry macaroni and a packet of cheese powder, weighing it, sealing it, and then placing it on a grid at the end of the table until they had 36 packages, which were then packed in boxes.
As music blared over the cafeteria sound system, students laughed, danced and competed to see which table could work the fastest.
“It’s festive, but at the end of the day, it’s something that’s really impactful,” McNary said.
Freshman Kenna Pfannenstiel said she hopes to continue the project through her high school years.
“It’s teaching us that you always need to give back to your community, work together and have fun,” she said.