Your Turn: Just Food is vital and more than a pantry
It’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since I retired. The days roll into weeks, the weeks to months and the months to years. Still, I remember a certain day in August 2015 like it was yesterday. It was my first day as a volunteer at Just Food here in Lawrence. It was also the day that the people of Lawrence learned that Jeremy Farmer had resigned as executive director, under circumstances that threatened the very existence of the organization. Of course, we know now that this was not the end but, in a way, the beginning of a new era for Just Food. As someone who has been privileged see it happen, I’d like to share what I know with you.
There are many opportunities to volunteer at Just Food. I chose to drive a truck to do “food recovery.” This is a fancy way to describe the process of going to grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores and local farmers to pick up food items that would otherwise be thrown away. Driving one or occasionally two days a week, I and my fellow volunteer Jim picked up around 50,000 pounds of food in 2018 alone. Considering all of Just Food, the total came to 1 million pounds! Think of that — all of that food would have been thrown away when there are so many hungry people in our community.
I’ve also helped pick up food that is donated at food drives and in the familiar barrels found in many churches and schools. These are nonperishable items that food recovery doesn’t pick up — cereal, peanut butter, tuna, etc. When these are not donated, Just Food has to use its precious dollars to buy them. The Food Truck Festival and the Harvest Feast help greatly in this regard; this can be your chance to support Just Food even if you never volunteer an hour at the facility.
I’ve also had a chance to observe the increasing number of people coming to Just Food for help. Just a few weeks ago, there were almost 300 families who came on one day for assistance. Funny thing, isn’t it? So many hungry people in the midst of the greatest economy of all time. Apparently they didn’t get the word about that. Fortunately, they did get the word about Just Food — 13,000 of them in 2018 alone, all from Douglas County.
Please don’t get the idea that Just Food is only a food pantry. At present, 29 entities get food from there for their own operations: The Salvation Army, Ballard Center, churches, schools and so forth. It’s also in a partnership with LMH to provide monthly wellness checks. Finally, through programs like Just Cook (teaches preparation of healthy meals for under $2) and Kitchen Works (teaches skills needed to get culinary jobs), it’s working with its clients to help break the cycle of poverty, which leads to hunger.
Finally, I’ve been extremely impressed by the unstinting efforts of the people who work and volunteer at Just Food. Led by Elizabeth (Liz) Keever, they put in whatever hours are needed to get the job done. Employees and volunteers come and go; Just Food and the need it addresses remain. If you don’t believe me, come and see. When you do, I hope you’ll stay and help; you may even find a spot on the truck.
— Jeff Southard is a retired attorney and aspiring novelist. He lives in Old West Lawrence.