Miller: Meet the people feeding Portagers experiencing food insecurity

Kids Weekend Meals volunteers from left to right: Nora Brant, Dale Ausperk, Kate Hankinson, Paul Meeker, Liz Meeker, Katie Baird, Cathy Ausperk, Carolyn Wysong and Kelly Baird. Jeff Miller/The Portager

Hello again, everybody!

For those who missed my first column, I’m a tall guy and writer who has returned to Kent after 14 years away, and I’m interested in finding the people who make Portage County special.

This month, I’d like to use this space to focus on folks in Portage County dedicated to serving students in their communities experiencing food insecurity.

In 2008, I did a program called AmeriCorps NCCC, a worthwhile year of service for 18 to 24-year-olds who are either eager to do service work or to live out of a van part-time — usually it’s both.

I spent a lot of time in New Orleans and was a part of a program for local teens called Summer of Service. It featured doing various kinds of volunteer work and a lot of manual labor in, dare I say, 200% humidity.

But one week, we got to volunteer at a New Orleans shelter, where we prepared daily free meals for anyone who needed them. I remember arriving in our 15-passenger van the first day, as the youths on my team began their week hesitant and almost frightened — clinging to each other and barely speaking to those that they were feeding.

But, by the end of the week, they were comfortable, chatty and scoured both their backpacks and our van for any extra food to offer their city’s fellow residents. It was a memorable moment that, to me, kind of proved the transformative power of simply being there for others. To paraphrase Mr. Rogers, I think it illuminated the importance of offering people a direct expression of care.

I recently met people in Portage County offering their expressions of care through providing food to students in local schools.

Thanks to a hot tip from a Portager reader, on an overcast Wednesday I went to the Mantua Center Christian Church to join the Kids Weekend Meals program created by Liz Meeker. It provides student recipients with food to help get through the weekend.

Kids Weekend Meals started in October of 2015 and initially served 50 kids throughout 20 families. Now, nine years later, the program serves 194 kids from about 80 different families.

This is a well-oiled machine that serves Crestwood schools — even preschools — and is led by the warm and jovial Meeker, the treasurer of the church and volunteer head of the program who instantly put me to work packing bags.

After finding my rhythm, and a few initial mistakes, I listened as numbers were pleasantly called out, and then plopped the corresponding number of snacks into plastic bags that were then passed along, labeled and sent out for delivery — all by volunteers.

Each recipient in the program is delivered a bag that features two breakfasts, two lunches and snacks.

As we packed bags, Meeker told me about the program and confirmed that this year has seen an increase in need from recipients.

“I will say, this year we have probably the hungriest group of people that we’ve ever had. I mean we’ll deliver and people will say, ‘Oh my gosh, we really need this food today,’” said Meeker as she dropped fruit snacks into a bag and then passed it my way.

This makes sense, what with the seemingly unrelenting increase in the prices of food.

As the program grew, Meeker made the decision to continue it through both spring and summer breaks.

“We decided, OK, these people need this food in the summer so we just continued right on. A lot of them are shocked that we do. But they’re really glad,” Meeker said. “I mean, we have some people we have had ever since the very start. So it’s really cool.”

During the pandemic, volunteers confirmed there was a definite spike in the amount of meals offered, plus the method of handing out meals changed. Originally recipients picked up at school, but now meals are delivered directly to homes.

Volunteers for KWM meet every other Wednesday in the church, though not all volunteers are affiliated with the church. Anyone from the community is free to reach out to offer their time, though Meeker does like to first meet with volunteers, as she feels it is important to emphasize discretion. She wants to do her part to make sure students don’t feel judged or put down by their peers.

Meeker also shared a memory of a time when she was young and food was scarce. It’s a feeling she has never forgotten, and it seems to act as inspiration.

“This is just for the love of helping people. Well, and a tad bit of insanity,” Meeker said with a laugh.

While Meeker used to coordinate everything from start to finish herself, she is thankful for the help from fellow volunteer Nora Brant, who has been with the program for over five years. Brant does seemingly everything, from picking up 800 cans of salmon from a local food bank to making sure recipients have things like can openers to finding and including recipes with deliveries.

“She hasn’t always been in charge of the food, but I realized quickly how good she was at planning the meals and using the things that we’ve got,” Meeker said of Brant.

The program has even received donations like a pig from the Randolph Fair, which provided a source of protein that is typically more expensive than what the budget allows.

Most of the funding for the year comes through a Turkey Plunge at Thanksgiving put on by Mantua Center Christian Church, which accounts for about two-thirds of their funding for the year via people jumping into frigid water.

Donations are also received from the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, Bruce Harris’ Food 2 Share food drive in Aurora and other members of local communities.

“We just had another guy from Hiram donate a cow. So we had it all ground up into ground beef because that’s something people can use easily. And that was just, I don’t know, out of the goodness of his heart kind of thing,” said Brant as we sat in a storage room, surrounded by stacks of canned and boxed food.

Offering nutritious options is also important to Meeker and Brant.

“It had always been my dream to be able to give everyone vegetables, fresh fruit and meats. And I think we’ve been giving them fresh vegetables for maybe three or four years now,” Meeker explained. “They get two fresh vegetables and two fresh fruits.”

But KWM understands humans enjoy treats now and then, especially on celebratory days. With help from the consignment store Passion For Fashion in Chesterland, birthday cake kits were created. They include all the fixings for recipients to make their own cake for the special day.

And, during the winter holidays, recipients also receive hats and gloves.

The program seems to meet a lot of needs, and I asked if they had any goals or hopes for the future.

“It would be to feed older people. There are a lot of older people around here that could use the help,” said Meeker. “But I could not do this by myself or without the 50 extra people that are there to help. It’s amazing; we’ve empowered other people to take it over.”

To continue my journey, that following Wednesday I headed to Kent to experience packing Birdie Bags with The Ben Curtis Family Foundation, which was created by husband and wife Candace and Ben Curtis. Each Birdie Bag has six meals and four snacks for each recipient for the weekend, and the program is largely the product of Ben and Candace Curtis and their team’s dedication.

Birdie Bags volunteers pack bags in a new warehouse space. Jeff Miller/The Portager

Birdie Bags started in 2013 and initially reached 135 recipients. Eleven years later, they are in 12 school districts, and there are almost 6,000 Birdie Bags being sent home each month. Help is in no short supply, too, as shifts for volunteers are now confirmed months in advance.

It was a rainy morning when I arrived at their warehouse, and I was warmly welcomed by a crew of peppy, longtime volunteers jamming out to ’70s disco music in the large warehouse space. However dreary it was outside, inside everyone was all smiles.

Long tables ran the center of the large open space, and I got the sense that a flurry of benevolent chaos was approaching. On one wall of the space signs are displayed, listing the districts served and the program’s mission statement: to help children overcome disadvantages to become the best champions of their own lives.

Right away I met most of the busy team: Candace Curtis’ mother and Bookkeeping and Audit Coordinator Diane Beatty, Communication Coordinator Sara Beatty, who is married to Candace Curtis’ brother, and Nicole Cross, the assistant marketing and event coordinator who everyone agreed “is going places.”

I was then introduced to the cheerful Candace Curtis, a Kent Roosevelt and Kent State grad, who arrived as more volunteers finished streaming into the space. She was busy, but we got to chat about the program. She emphasized that while no new schools were added, this year the need for food had increased in schools that they already served.

“We didn’t really grow geographically this year, but we grew deeper,” Curtis said, emphasizing that districts like Cuyahoga Falls had a 40% spike in need. “It’s hitting everyone.”

Curtis and Sara Beatty began to explain the methods of the operation as the two gave me a quick tour before I joined the assembly line of bag production. We toured a room filled with 55 pallets full of food that will go out to recipients ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Surrounded by towers of donated food, Curtis shared memories of the program’s beginnings.

“I was really afraid of the manpower to, you know, to pack up because our first pack was Ben, myself, my mom, my brother, my dad and the kids in our basement. I was like ‘Oh, I don’t know if we’re gonna ever get this done,’” Curtis said. “And now here we are.”

A program that was once done in a basement, and then in a spare room of a church, now has ample space. Rolling plastic cans typically used for trash are labeled and numbered, then filled with Birdie Bags and organized for schools to pick up, and the program reaches out to each school to see about continuing for summer.

Many of the donations, like Kids Weekend Meals, are received from the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank — but the community also helps, like local delivery drivers that live nearby and drop off any surplus. Even Beckwith Orchards has donated apples in the past.

The program also received a donation of a third-party, week-long study known as a “kaizen” at no cost through Kent Elastomer Products. The study focused on efficiency and streamlining the process, as Curtis has always wanted to serve as many people as possible and ensure that donations of food, time and money were used effectively.

“We wanted to make sure we were doing everything as efficiently as we could, especially because we wanted to grow and we didn’t have the room,” Curtis said before heading off to chat with her team of volunteers.

Sara Beatty, who plans the menus three weeks in advance, showed me the current food available and talked about her process.

“We look at a lot of factors when planning out a menu for feeding almost 6,000 kids each month,” Beatty said. “We never know what will be available at the food bank each week and we try to keep costs low.”

I then was shown a room filled with toys for A Very Merry Dinner event during the Christmas season, which is available in six of the districts the foundation serves.

It features gifts and food and was at first an in-person dinner, but the pandemic shifted it to a drive-through pickup, which ultimately helps serve more people in the end.

Students are selected by schools, and they all complete a wish-list for gifts. Curtis is big on students getting what they asked for, so her mother Diane Beatty does any shopping for items they don’t have on-hand.

Folks that have been volunteering for years helped me along in the process, and we all happily packed bags in short order. And while it seems like there’s room for now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of Birdie Bags delivered continues to grow.

From my time helping out, it seems there is something special about meeting people who are just being there for others with kindness and availability, offering their time and their own direct expressions of care.

I know these are only two programs in the county, and many communities offer their own version of a food service for students that are doing the same kind of work. Maybe finding out about similar programs in your own community is worth exploring?

It definitely seemed like everyone was enjoying helping others. And, sure, maybe birthday cakes and a little disco at maximum volume help, too.

Jeff Miller
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