When they talk about grassroots organizations in the Champaign-Urbana area, Feeding Our Kids could aptly serve as a prototype.
The non-profit group began four years ago as “two moms in the community who saw a need,” said Ann Kirkland, who was one of those moms along with co-founder Jenelle Keene. Their mission: To provide nourishing food to food insecure school children in Champaign County on weekends and school holidays throughout the year.
What was once a project to feed food insecure children who attended the same schools as their own kids, has now grown into a 501-c-3 organization that encompasses more than 750 kids in 36 schools.
“We became aware of the needs that there are kids in our schools who go home hungry on the weekend,” Kirkland said. “These are kids who are considered food insecure and eat their breakfast and lunch at school and know definitely that it is the only food they’ll be receiving.
“Through working with the social workers in the schools, it became evident that sending home food with these kids that would be nutritious and would be easy for them to open and prepare or eat out of the packages was something that was definitely a need in the community.”
Feeding Our Kids provides a bag of shelf-stable food with about eight items for each weekend. In typically includes a drink, some type of breakfast item and one or two meal items, which change each week. “We try to put as much nutrition into a bag as we can,” she said.
To maintain a child’s privacy, the bag is small enough to fit inside a backpack, especially important for older kids who might be self-conscious about being identified as being food insecure.
“The other thing that’s been really nice is that because the food can easily fit in the backpack, the kids are assured to be able to get it home,” Kirkland said.
Statistics show that 1 in 5 children are food insecure. The Eastern Illinois Foodbank once had a backpack program that was limited to certain qualifying schools in more than a dozen counties. The Foodbank eventually asked Feeding Our Kids to take over the backpack program; though Keene and Kirkland couldn’t feed 17 counties, they sought to provide bags for all kids in Champaign County.
Feeding Our Kids works with the Foodbank through a five-year grant that began in the 2015-16 school year. The Foodbank provides a portion of the food, typically peanut butter and milk. “It has been a good working relationship,” Kirkland said. “We try not to take on any more schools or children that we know that we can financially continue to serve. We essentially doubled the number of kids by doing that.”
It is hardly an isolated venture; the Feeding Our Kids website lists more than a dozen groups and businesses who have helped the organization achieve its goals.
Assistance comes in many forms. Feeding Our Kids doesn’t typically host food drives but many groups — most recently Robeson School and the Illini women’s basketball team — host food drives for them. Families also chip in by packing the backpacks. And kids are included. Champaign Church of Christ, which hosts Feeding Our Kids, has a room where kids can play while the parents pack. Or the kids can pack, too.
“We don’t have a (minimum) on how old your child has to be to come with you,” Kirkland said. “We do ask that adults check on their child while they’re helping us bag. We’ve had toddlers walk around and grab stuff and put in in the bag, and that’s cool. We love it because we want these kids to understand that they’re doing something in their community, and as they grow up hopefully they’ll have that desire to continue to help and be aware of the issues out there.”
Financial assistance continues to be their greatest need, and volunteers are always welcome. Beyond that, it’s a community awareness of the issues they’re trying to relieve.
“Hunger is not one of those things you hear about in a third-world country,” she said. “It’s a very real issue here with our neighbors and kids that our children go to school with.”
Though Keene and Kirkland didn’t start out with the intention of creating a non-profit organization of this scope, they have become a shining example of the impact that earnest efforts can achieve.
“Be it 800 students or eight students,” Kirkland said, “we don’t really care. We want to be there for however many or however few kids need it. We know the value of how far some extra nutrition can go.”