Project’s meals help food insecure children get through the weekend
Sometimes it takes just one person with an idea and a few poker buddies to start something big. So big that it evolves into The Children’s Hunger Project, a 501c3 charity that feeds nearly 3,000 children weekly, in 47 elementary schools, in an effort to eliminate the growing problem of weekend childhood hunger.
Back in 2008, Bob Barnes was working in his office with the TV on as background noise when he heard the words hunger and children on a CNN show where Nancy Grace was interviewing Stan Curtis, founder of a Louisville, Kentucky, charity called Blessings in a Backpack. In the interview they revealed that 1 out of 5 children are food insecure especially over the weekends when they are not getting free school lunches.
“I did not know that kids were going hungry,” Barnes said. “I thought about it and thought this is something I could do to make a difference in Brevard County. I called Mr. Curtis who just happened to be giving a speech in West Palm Beach the following week and met him for dinner. By the time I started the drive home I knew I was going to start a local charity.
“Because I think more like a business person than an altruistic person, I developed a sophisticated business plan that consisted of just nine words. See a hungry kid. Buy food. Feed the kid.”
The simplicity of the plan is what makes it so workable. Barnes ran the plan by some of his poker buddies and they immediately jumped on board. They started identifying food insecure students at just one school, Riviera Elementary School in Palm Bay, and fed 27 children. Being the eternal optimist, Barnes knew if he could feed 100 kids it would be remarkable. He scheduled lunch with David Cohen, the vice president of Morgan Stanley, and told him what he was doing.
“At the end of our conversation he asked what we needed and I told him it costs about $150 per kid per year so if we were going to feed 100 we needed $15,000, “ Barnes recalled. “Cohen wrote a check on the spot and that kick started the whole charity.
“Honestly this charity is guided by angels every step of the way,” Barnes explained.
“One day I had lunch with Bruce Nelson Jr. of Cocoa Hyundai and I told him we had outgrown the place where we were packaging lunches and that I was having difficulty finding a warehouse to rent. He offered us space on the property of Cocoa Hyundai and we haven’t paid a penny in rent for six years.
“Then as we outgrew that space, the Shah family, who owns Southeast Petro, donated 100 percent of the equity of a building in the heart of Cocoa Village [estimated to be about $500,000] to house The Children’s Hunger Project Headquarters on a permanent basis. Proof once again that angels walk among us.”
More than 50 percent of Brevard students are on the free or reduced lunch program and receive a free breakfast and lunch during the week. Without The Children’s Hunger Project, Friday lunch would be their last meal until Monday. The weekend meals provided by the charity ensure children are eating during the weekend and will be prepared to learn on Monday.
With more than 2,900 meals to prepare each week, it takes hundreds of volunteers and a small dedicated staff to orchestrate the packing and deliveries. The project collaborates with Brevard public school nutritionists to guarantee the children receive adequate nutrition. All the food is prepped by volunteers, packed by volunteers and delivered by volunteers. Food items include canned ravioli or rice with chicken and vegetables, milk, juice boxes, breakfast bars, cereal and other nonperishable items.
“A lot of businesses and groups will come in and pack as a team-building project but individuals are always welcome to participate,” said the charity’s executive director, Cheryl Cominsky. “Volunteers currently meet on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for a couple of hours and then our delivery volunteers will transport the packages to the schools. It’s really a lot of fun and we’ve seen some lasting friendships blossom during our packing events. Volunteers also help with office mailings and phone calls, and staff information booths at various community events.”
Of course, donations are always welcome and 100 percent of the money collected goes toward feeding hungry kids. A monthly recurring gift of just $16, or $190 annually, will feed a child for the entire school year.
Visit TheChildrensHungerProject.org or call 321.610.1900 for more information on how you can help a hungry child.
Kerry Firth is a native Floridian who has lived in Vero Beach for nearly 40 years. She is the founder and former publisher of a local tourism guide, who recently became semiretired so she could enjoy the freedom of freelance writing for a variety of local publications.