Free lunch: The incredible effort to feed Lincoln's hungry

2013-02-24T15:00:00Z 2013-11-21T14:54:17Z Free lunch: The incredible effort to feed Lincoln's hungryBy PETER SALTER / Lincoln Journal Star

The truck driver knows all the rough roads on his route -- the craters on North 48th Street, the washboard stretch of Superior Street, the jostling along South 40th Street.

He’s learned to brace for these bumps after driving them daily, 64 miles each morning, from store to store to store.

Hold on, he says.

The truck driver also knows all of the grocery storeroom managers who help feed this city for free, filling shopping cart after shopping cart with the bread, bagels, butter beans, bananas, cookies, Crunch and Munch, mangoes and more he loads into the back of his 20-foot Food Bank truck.

Thank you, he says.

“One thing I do at every store is thank the stockroom people. Those are the people that the people in need never see. They won’t know Don or Randy or Jo or Deb. But they’re the ones taking the time to get ready for me.”

And then Gary Lockett Sr. pulls out of the Super Saver parking lot, shifting gears, slipping into traffic, heading to the next store -- collecting thousands of pounds of groceries but playing just one small part in the multimillion-dollar effort that has grown to help feed the thousands in and around Lincoln who can’t pay to put food in their cupboards, on their plates, in their bellies.

Plastic bags, empty stomachs

It’s a relentless river of food, measured in millions of pounds and always on the move -- flowing from donation barrel and stockroom to truck and trunk, inspected, sorted, loaded and unloaded, packed and unpacked, counted out and then carried away.

And those who rely on it gather by the thousands, sharing very little in common but a fundamental need to eat.

They learn where to line up, with their plastic bags and laundry baskets and empty stomachs: 1 p.m. Tuesday at the F Street Rec Center; 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Cristo Rey; 1 p.m. Thursday at Malone.

And dozens more every week.

Last year, the Food Bank of Lincoln distributed nearly 9 million pounds of food, enough to make 7.5 million meals. That’s up 10 percent from the previous year.

And the all-volunteer FoodNet helped nearly 300,000 people last year, welcoming the hungry with excess and expiring grocery store and restaurant food at 22 sites each week -- churches, community centers, even a helper’s home.

The People’s City Mission served 200,000 meals to the homeless and gave away 1 million pounds of food to those still home but struggling.

At the Gathering Place -- two blocks from the governor’s mansion -- volunteers served 31,000 suppers to those who set aside their humility and sat down for a free, hot meal.

Matt Talbot Kitchen served nearly 103,000 meals last year, Meals and Wheels made 12,000 deliveries and 12,600 Lancaster County residents spent an average of $282 a month in what used to be called food stamps but now is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Elementary school students carried home 560,000 meals in backpacks to help their families through the weekends, and a pair of food pantries opened in high schools.

It takes an army to feed this village.

The Food Bank’s 22 employees were helped by 56,000 volunteer hours. Nearly 600 volunteers logged 83,500 hours running FoodNet. And about 750 state employees spend at least part of their jobs helping Nebraska’s hungry.

But so much of this plays out quietly, out of sight from a Lincoln that might contribute a few cans of soup when asked by a church -- or to get into a home and garden show -- but has no real idea of how many of its neighbors need help, or how many are helping.

“Poverty is so much bigger than people know,” said Pastor Tom Barber, the City Mission’s director. “Lincoln does a good job hiding it. We do a good job not seeing it.”

‘A basic necessity’

Almost every day in Lincoln, a child welfare worker is looking inside a family’s cupboards. Opening the fridge.

Making sure parents can feed their kids.

“We need to make sure the environment of the home is safe for the child, and obviously food is a basic necessity for them. And we need to make sure the family has food,” said Claudia Shafer, an initial assessment specialist for the state’s Division of Child and Family Services.

They’ve found refrigerators nearly empty. Or full of rotting food -- bought fresh with SNAP funds at the beginning of the month but perishing toward the end.

Usually, investigators find enough to eat. Maybe not an ample supply, but adequate.

“We really are pretty fortunate in Lincoln that we do have a community that -- I don’t want to say rich with resources -- but has adequate resources,” said Sherrie Spilde, a division administrator.

In fact, neither Shafer nor Spilde nor another supervisor could recall finding a child suffering malnourishment because a family couldn’t afford food.

Lincoln Police Sgt. Mark Unvert has investigated thousands of child abuse and neglect cases in Lincoln. He’s seen children fed Twinkies for breakfast. And he’s seen worse: malnourished children, empty cupboards.

But those hardest cases are rare, he said, and almost always are linked to another issue -- like parents with addiction or mental health problems.

“I don’t want to minimize that there aren’t people hungry in this community, or kids hungry, because I think there are. But those are going to be hard to find.”

With so many sources of food in Lincoln, those in the business of giving it away say it would be hard to starve here.

“There shouldn’t be anybody in Lincoln going hungry,” said Leia Noel, president of the FoodNet board. “It would be their own responsibility if they’re going hungry.”

FoodNet volunteers give away food all week, including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays -- even Christmas.

Unlike at other sites, anyone -- not just the verifiably poor -- can show up, get in line and leave with a bag or box of food. Most are working-class families stretching their budgets, Noel said.

Which is how many providers characterize the hungry in Lincoln: not starved, but scared. Not sure where their next meal or the meal after that will come from. Not sure whether they should buy groceries or pay their electric bills.

The Center for People in Need, which last year gave away 2.4 million pounds of food, asked more than 2,000 of its clients about their food supplies.

* Do you have enough food for your family today? 30 percent said no.

* Enough for next week? 43 percent said no.

* Do you or others in your household skip meals because you don’t have enough food? More than a third answered sometimes, often or always.

“I think there are a lot of hunger pangs, because our food doesn’t cover all of their needs,” said Beatty Brasch, the center's director.

‘Still suffering’

Michael Ryan rarely ate breakfast, but after taking over the Gathering Place eight years ago, he stopped eating lunch, too.

He wanted to know what an empty stomach felt like.

He wanted to know what his guests felt like.

The Gathering Place has served supper for nearly 30 years in a 100-year-old home on E Street. Institutional tables and chairs, worn wooden floors, everyone welcome if they behave.

Last year, an average of 120 people showed up every night, up from the year before and the year before that.

“They’re all backgrounds," Ryan said. "People who have not made it through junior high. We have college graduates. We had one guy who had been a college professor.”

A few diners he met at the beginning still show up. Like Mona Christopher, whose $54 in SNAP benefits won’t buy her enough TV dinners and pot pies for the month. The 59-year-old has seniority here and always is offered the front of the line.

And Mary Smith, who plays the piano at the top of the stairs: “When the Saints Go Marching In,” as diners start lining up with their trays; “Pomp and Circumstance” when they’re waiting for seconds.

Her green bean casserole cools beside her on the bench as she transitions to “God Bless America.” When there are children eating, she plays, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” because even they know that one.

The 79-year-old has eaten here for decades. “I don’t cook at home, so I get my food here. That’s not cheating; I’m staying alive.”

Ryan wonders about the familiar faces that disappeared.

“You see them consistently for one or two years, and then you don’t see them again. You hope they’ve moved on to a better place.”

Still, every night, there is more hunger at his door. Younger hunger. And more women, more children.

So Ryan still skips his meals. He won’t eat until he gets home, after everyone else has eaten.

“People are still suffering. It hasn’t gone away, so why should it go away for me?”

Food in

The truck driver leaves the new Super Saver in Fallbrook with bread, bagels, papaya and a heart-shaped Valentine’s cake, then steers toward the far end of the city -- the Super Saver on Pine Lake Road.

He takes the interstate and the expressway, skirting farm fields that help feed the country.

Gary Lockett spent nearly two decades at Kawasaki, but he took a buyout a few years ago.

“I really wanted to do something that I wanted to do, that I enjoy doing. I like to drive -- and I really enjoy helping people.”

Now he drives full time for the Food Bank, filling his truck with whatever grocery stores give him. He runs a short, four-store route on Sunday mornings, then delivers the sermon to 125 followers at Praise Temple Church of the Living God, which he started a decade ago.

He picks up more bakery items from Pine Lake, then several shopping carts from Super Target -- tomato paste, granola bars, Kleenex, ravioli, baked beans.

He’s gentle, deliberate, unloading the carts into the back of his truck.

This is someone’s meal.

“It’s a diversity of people you see. From every walk of life. I’ve seen people who once were doing well, and now they’re in line.”

Food Bank drivers make 50 to 60 pickups per week, most of those at grocery stores. Last year, for example, Lincoln’s three Walmart stores gave more than 625,000 pounds of food.

Others give in volume, too. Prairieland Dairy donated 135,000 pounds -- mostly milk -- and Cargill gave 236,000 pounds of meat, the Food Bank’s Alex Shada said.

That canned food you put into a blue barrel? Food drive food? It’s important. Symbolic. It makes you aware of hunger, but it only contributed to 8 percent of the Food Bank’s intake last year.

The Food Bank’s headquarters near 48th and Superior streets is ground zero for the war on hunger. Most of the area’s free food -- from your cupboard or from Lockett’s truck -- comes and goes through its big bay doors.

Its warehouse resembles a grocery store’s: Pallets stacked on high shelves. Canned pears and fruit cocktail and chips and chili beans and Oreos. Peanut butter. Pasta. Soup.

In the walk-in cooler: Hy-Vee deli sandwiches, milk, onions and oranges; last year, fresh produce represented 30 percent of its distributed food.

Shada opens the freezer: ground beef and pepperoni, chicken and prime rib.

“People think of the Food Bank, they think of old expired canned food. But it’s produce, eggs, meat. It’s allowing them to not have to go to the grocery store and making them able to pay another bill.”

Food doesn’t stay still here long. Canned and packaged dry food might sit on the shelf for two weeks, but perishables -- the milk and the apples and the oranges -- could be on someone’s table in a day or two.

The Food Bank provides food to more than 90 programs, including the big feeders in Lincoln: Center for People in Need, People’s City Mission and the Gathering Place.

But not FoodNet.

The group started in 1985 with volunteers collecting extra food from restaurants and grocery stores and simply giving it to those who wanted it. No questions asked, no incomes verified.

It’s grown quietly in the shadow of the highly visible Food Bank, which started in 1982 and now serves 10,000 people per week with a fleet of trucks, programs across the region and a $1 million payroll.

FoodNet still operates with no paid staff, no office, “not even a copy machine,” said Noel, its board president. Today, nearly 600 volunteers collect food with their own cars, drive it to a church or community center and give it away.

For years, she saw the two serving different niches: The Food Bank moved large volumes of nonperishable food; FoodNet picked up smaller quantities of perishables and gave them away the same day.

If a restaurant gives soup, volunteers repackage it in smaller containers. Fried chicken? Divided into plastic bags. They inspect produce. They sort the apples with the apples.

They’re grateful.

“Lincoln is very generous. The businesses are extremely generous.”

But FoodNet is feeling pressure from the Food Bank. Noel said the Food Bank recently recruited 13 of FoodNet’s longtime suppliers; Shada said the grocery stores used to supply the Food Bank, and they mutually agreed to renew that arrangement.

Still, with those stores now giving most of their groceries to the Food Bank, FoodNet took a hit, Noel said.

“We have lost quite a few pick-ups. It has affected us. But the Lord has provided.”

Food out

There’s no need to run. Or get here hours early. Or try to jump the line.

Show up at the Center for People in Need’s food giveaway and you get a random number, your turn at the tables.

But a crowd already was forming recently at the Malone Center, even as volunteers still were outside unloading the Food Bank truck. Even as other volunteers were lining up a half-dozen serving tables inside.

By the end of the hour, they’d unpacked 3,000 pounds, tossing empty cardboard boxes on the floor, where they were snapped up by recipients.

That day, more than 150 people moved down the line, taking their allotted chicken sausage, kidney beans, bologna, fresh spinach, animal crackers, grapefruit juice, bread, M&Ms. About 30 pounds per person.

The next week: 3-pound hams, Smart Chicken, pineapple, avocados.

The Center for People in Need hosts the city’s big food giveaways: here at the Malone Center, or the F Street Rec Center, or Tuesdays at its headquarters, which draws 500 people.

And it has rules. You must be income-eligible, living at 150 percent of the federal poverty level. You can visit only one site per week.

Yet even with those restrictions, the center is reaching more than 1,000 families a week.

Like James Ray, who waited for his turn, back to the wall, sitting on his upturned cooler.

He doesn’t come every week. But the 47-year-old father and part-time worker isn’t ashamed to accept the food, the help, when he needs it.

“Some people are too proud to come. I think that’s sad. I don’t know how a person cannot come and do this. It’s quality food -- the same I’d buy in a store.”

Shannon Ferguson filled her box but then took a place behind the table, serving others. The 32-year-old moved here from Canada in 2007 to attend Union College.

She was a single mom then, and she ended up at the Malone Center, hungry.

“I was waiting for them to start, and I saw they didn’t have many volunteers so I asked if they needed help.”

She’s married now, three kids between them. Her husband is working again. She’s learned to be inventive in the kitchen, to stretch meals, to freeze what she can.

She still helps, but she still needs the help. The Malone Center food makes up maybe 25 percent of her family's groceries, but it’s good food. And it helps them pay other bills.

“We would survive. But we wouldn’t have as much variety. We would probably be eating peanut butter instead of meat sandwiches.”

The crowd around her inside the Malone Center was young and old. Men and women. Well-dressed and disheveled. Veterans and refugees. Singles and families. Quiet and humble. Some asked: Please don’t put my picture in the paper.

Food providers can’t name a single source of hunger.

People have bad luck, they make bad choices, they’re mentally ill, they’re addicted, they’re underpaid, they’re from broken families, they never learned a work ethic, they lost their jobs.

But they still need to eat.

“It hits the most dire need,” the mission’s Tom Barber said. “When you talk about food and shelter, you’re talking about basic survival.”

‘Thank you for this food’

Rico Kotrous runs a church, a counseling center, a convenience store and a repair shop.

And for more than 25 years, he’s spent a few hours every week feeding strangers as a FoodNet volunteer.

“I did not want to see all the waste, and there are people who have a need for this. They might not always use their money wisely, but they still have a need.”

On a recent Thursday morning at the Calvert Rec Center, FoodNet volunteers unpacked 20 boxes of food: Russ’s deli sandwiches, fried chicken, skim milk, yogurt, chocolate chip cookie dough, tortillas, seven jalapeños.

A good day, Kotrous said.

Some weeks, he can give away only half as much.

Nearly 50 people waited for the doors to open, clutching poker chips bearing their order in line.

Burt Schlichting moved here from Germany in 1951, when he was 27.

“There was no hope in Germany. We figured here in the U.S., there’s a little better future.”

There was. He married Inge, raised two girls, found a career fixing freight cars for the railroad. The 89-year-old has a pension, so he doesn’t always need this food.

But it won’t go to waste; he’ll keep the food moving.

“I help with it. If I get too much, I give it to my friends and my neighbors.”

As he does every week, Kotrous calls for the crowd’s attention before leading them into the serving room.

“Lord,” he begins, “I thank you for this food.”

Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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