Without the contributions from the community, some students in the Harrisonville School District would be going hungry this summer.
Harrisonville resident Vanessa Hargrave, 31, says that many students who rely on the district’s free and reduced school lunch program often struggle during the summertime months to eat when school isn’t in session.
“Having good nutrition fuels brainpower,” Hargrave said. “Going without proper nutrition is detrimental to these kids’ development.”
In 2011, Hargrave helped launch a summer food assistance initiative, Just4Me, to help curve the hunger problem that was present in her community.
“This is our future generation of leaders and caregivers,” she said. “We have to make sure there taken care of.”
The program was created to compliment and to fill in the gap from the Harrisonville Public School Foundation’s Food 4 Thought backpack school-year program.
“Many communities don’t have these programs in the summer,” Hargrave said. “Many don’t realize that it is in the months of summer that the need for food assistance is at its highest, while assistance itself is at its lowest.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 20 percent of children in the U.S., live in food insecure homes, and Missouri is within of the top 10 U.S. states with the highest rate of food insecure children.
Now in its fourth year, Just4Me has delivered more than 1,300 packed boxes of food, consisting of 17,000 meals, to help in-need youth maintain proper nutrition while school is not in session.
This summer, 82 students will receive two boxes of food at the start of each month. Collectively, the boxes include enough for about 25 meals.
Hargrave and her volunteers work directly with Harrisonville School District’s social worker Jennifer Beavers to qualify students to receive food boxes.
“I was very fortunate to be raised in a family where we never experienced having to go without,” Hargrave said. “Being a part of this has been a real eye-opener.”
The boxes typically include packages of instant oatmeal, cereal bowls, peanut butter and jelly, fruit cups, granola bars, easy-to-fix microwavable meals and other snacks.
Just4Me is also being utilized by a Harvesters Community Food Network pilot program to gain additional food items for elementary students being serviced in the local food initiative. The Harvesters food packs are distributed with the Just4Me food boxes.
Hargrave and her volunteers solicit donations and host fundraisers to purchase the food from local grocers. She said the program costs about $15,000 annually.
All of the funding they received goes toward the purchase of food, while her business, Advance PressurePro, covers the cost of the boxes and packing tape.
The Cass County Elks Lodge has also been generous toward the program, Hargrave said.
Hargrave also actively recruits volunteers, including school groups and church/civic organizations, to gather monthly over the summer months to pack the boxes full of kid-friendly meals.
Other groups of volunteers then meet a few day after the packing to load the boxes into their vehicles and deliver them to kids in need around the Harrisonville community.
About half of the students receive their food by the delivery method. The other remaining are able to pick up their food boxes from Harrisonville’s district office.
Hargrave said individuals who volunteer get to sees the hunger issues in their community first hand.
“A lot of people don’t understand that people are food insecure in our community,” she said.
She also added that not all of these families benefiting from Just4Me have made negative decisions that have led to their situation - citing the economy and job layoffs.
Hargrave has also seen how the outreach is even helping feed children in her own neighborhood. Even though some of the children are receiving the food boxes, she said she keeps even extra food in stocked in her fridge.
“They come over and they’re hungry,” Hargrave said. “I hear their stomachs. I couldn’t imagine having that need (with my child) and not being able to fill it.”
Hargrave said the success of the program is detriment on the financial support and fundraising that they receive.
Individuals who wish to make tax-deductible contributions or volunteer their time, can contact Hargrave at Advantage PressurePro, 205 W. Wall St., Harrisonville during regular business hours, or by phone at 816-591-2950. Financial contributions can be made payable to the Harrisonville Public School Foundation by mentioning “Just4Me” in the memo line.