It is not every day that McDonald’s changes someone’s life.
But it did for Jeremy Farmer, the executive director of Lawrence’s largest food bank. Farmer was a youth minister at a church in San Jose when he met David, a 14-year old who was most notable for a near constant question he would ask: When was Farmer going to take him to McDonald’s?
“It finally got to the point that I had to ask him why he was pestering me so much to go to McDonald’s,” Farmer said.
Turns out, he had a pretty good reason.
“He proceeded to tell me that he and his family had eaten dog food for the last year,” Farmer said. “There was something in me that wouldn’t allow me to ignore that moment. That is the moment I feel like feeding people became a passion of mine.”
Address: 1135 Randall Road
Profession: Executive director of Just Food
Education: Clinical counseling degree from the Colorado Theological Seminary, Longmont, Colo.
Farmer is one of 11 candidates for a seat on the Lawrence City Commission.
Farmer said he hopes to add a voice on the City Commission for Lawrence’s low-income residents, who he said mainly just want a job or training.
“I was 95 percent sure I was going to file for City Commission, but it took me longer to get from 95 percent to 100 than it took to get from zero to 95. What did it is one guy sat right here in my office and buried his head in his hands, asking me to help him get a job in Lawrence. He was working in Topeka for $8.25, and gas prices were killing him.
“So many times when we talk about those issues in this community, we don’t have anybody in that situation at the table.”
A Kmart kid
Farmer, 29, is the executive director of the Lawrence-based nonprofit Just Food. He is a Lawrence native, and he remembers poverty well growing up in Lawrence.
“When I grew up here, there were three categories,” Farmer said. “The lower class shopped at Kmart, the middle class shopped at Walmart and everybody else shopped downtown. We were a Kmart family, with an occasional trip to Walmart and we went downtown with our grandparents.”
Farmer left Lawrence when he was 18, went to seminary and started a career in the ministry, working for churches in both California and Arkansas.
But there came a day when Farmer realized the ministry wasn’t quite what he had expected it to be.
“I was working at churches that were very fast-growing, a very quick pace,” Farmer said. “I remember thinking one day that I was so busy being in meetings trying to grow this thing that I didn’t have time to do what I thought I really needed to do, which is talk to people.”
Not long after that, his sister-in-law sent him a classified ad for the director job at Just Food. Farmer has been at the food bank since July 2011.
The food bank serves from 5,000 to 8,000 people a month. When Farmer started, the organization had an annual budget of $139,000. Through increased grant funding and other donations, the organization’s budget has grown to $1.4 million, Farmer said.
“That’s both a good and a bad thing,” Farmer said. “In my world, growing is not better. Shrinking is a good sign. The toughest part of this job is being reminded every day that there is so much need out there.”
But Farmer said he thinks his skill sets and his desire to reach out to people who aren’t being heard will serve him well on the City Commission.
“I feel like there has been a thread throughout my life of having a deep desire to help people and trying to connect people to a better life,” Farmer said. “I hope when I’m old and gray, I can look back and say that is what I was made to do.”
Farmer — who is a member of the city and county’s Joint Economic Development Council — said he’ll spend much time during the campaign talking about the need to provide employment opportunities and technical education to all types of income groups in Lawrence.
“Most of the time, the people I’m working with have no desire to come to a City Commission meeting and say, ‘I don’t have a job and, by the way, I haven’t had one for five years and I’ve been applying to get one,’” Farmer said.
On other issues, Farmer said:
• He wants to try to create more consensus in the community, especially in the area of economic development. Farmer was a founder and former board member of a relatively new citizens group, Cadre Lawrence, which works to support commerce and encourage a business-friendly environment in Lawrence. Farmer said he has resigned from the board of that group since becoming a candidate.
• He will actively support the school bond issue that will be on the ballot during April’s general election. The bond issue includes funding for increased technical education, but Farmer said his reason for support goes beyond that issue.
“I’m hugely in favor of the school bond issue,” Farmer said. “If we want to have strong neighborhoods, we have to have good schools.”
A Feb. 26 primary will narrow the field of 11 city commission candidates to six. The general election — where the top three vote winners will take a seat on the commission — will be April 2.