BEHIND THE SCENES: Feeding Those in Need

The blog below was written by one of the JLev.Life Gurus, Denise Dameron, Executive Director of the United Way of the Mark Twain Area. Prepare to be inspired!


God said feed the people and we did. – Mike Sparks, Palmyra (Mo) Area Food Pantry Volunteer In September of 2018, I was heading to speak at a Rotary Club Meeting in Paris, Mo. I speak at these gatherings frequently and didn’t think too much about making my way to the small town of Paris and sharing about the good work United Way was doing in the community.  What I didn’t know was I was going to learn about the action of a young lady. This young lady’s action would plant a seed to make something beautiful happen. 

In August of 2018 before the State Fair, one month before this meeting, Aly Francis who was then heading into her senior year of high school, met an older lady while at the gas station in town. The older lady was talking about only having one chicken breast to eat for the rest of the week. Aly who had grown up on a farm just outside of town was shocked to learn that in the middle of her agricultural community with ample food resources, a senior faced not having enough to eat. Aly went on to the state fair, but this fact bothered her throughout her time at the fair that year. She participated in a program while at the fair sponsored by Missouri Farmers Care where she packed food bags for youth. She learned many Missourians faced food insecurity, and these Missourians didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. It was at the State Fair that Aly chose to donate her barrows at the conclusion of the fair to the local senior center in Paris, Mo. This would be Aly’s way of helping fight food insecurity in her own community. This action had a ripple effect.  I learned about Aly’s good deed on that day in September of 2018 during that Rotary Meeting and it hit close to home. I too had grown up on a farm and showed livestock. Never did I, as a 4H youth, know that food insecurity was something people in my small community faced. Additionally, I didn’t realize I held a solution to combat the overall problem when leading around my 1,400 pound steer (yes, our steers were always large for the rail).  On my 40-minute drive back from Paris, Mo. to Hannibal, Mo., I got thinking about how the action Aly took could be replicated by other 4H and FFA youth. Young people spend an incredible amount of time raising livestock and breaking them to show over the summer. Normally the summer ends for these young people with tears in their eyes selling their market hogs, market lambs, market goats, and/or steers at their county fair’s sale or loading them on a truck at the state fair after the carcass show. 

Though some families raise these animals to go into their own freezers, many families don’t. These projects are done for children to learn responsibility, get some dollars put into their savings accounts from “selling” the animal at the county fair’s sale for premium only, and for the competitive aspect of striving for that grand champion handshake from the judge. For these young people, I realized the tears that come from loading that animal up could also include the satisfaction of knowing something great was done for someone in need with their beloved animal. 

In late June of 2018, tragedy had struck our small Northeast Missouri community when cherished farmer Ralph Griesbaum passed away in a farming accident. During Ralph’s life, he did a lot of wonderful work with a focus on benefiting the community. One project he tackled was the creation and implementation of Project Protein. Food pantries frequently do not have a healthy source or any source of protein to provide their clients. Ralph worked to obtain funding to purchase cull hogs from Cargill and pay for the processing of these hogs at the Country Butcher Shop in Palmyra, Mo. Pork from these hogs was then donated to local food pantries so individuals in need would have a healthy source of protein. While the program was in place, enough pork for 1.4 million meals was provided to food pantries in Northeast Missouri. 

I had known about this program as Farm Bureau was heavily involved, and my grandparents had served on the local Farm Bureau board for my entire life. With Ralph in mind, I knew if funding could be found to make 1.4 million meals of pork happen, then we could find funding to pay for the processing of animals so 4H and FFA youth could donate them at the conclusion of fair season to local food pantries and senior centers. 

I connected with Aly Francis and her father, Tony Francis who works with USDA, about my idea of creating this as an opportunity for other 4H and FFA Youth. They loved the idea and Aly’s Project: Youth Feeding the Needy was born. 

By writing grants to the Community Foundation serving Northeast Missouri and West Central Illinois and the General Mills Foundation Hometown Grant Making Program, over $10,000 was designated to help pay for the processing of donated animals which were then donated to food pantries and senior centers from youth through Aly’s Project. 

In the project’s first year, there were 9 youth who donated livestock and enough meat to provide 6,800 meals to local food pantries and senior centers. In getting this project going, I had spoken with local fair boards, 4H councils, sent correspondence to local media outlets and more.

Joe Kendrick, a local farmer I have known since I was a young 4Her, learned about the project. Joe was a good friend of Ralph Griesbaum. He too saw the tie between Aly’s Project: Youth Feeding the Needy and Project Protein. Joe encouraged participation in the program within Marion County. 

Then, came COVID-19 and the disasters this made for the agricultural industry. Joe raises hogs for JBS Pork. In early April, field representative for JBS, Andy Thomeczek, reached out to him sharing that because of the shutdown of processing plants Kendrick would need to euthanize and compost any hogs that didn’t meet market weight and/or were cull hogs that were not ideal for the rail. 

Joe hated to hear this and was determined to not waste pork that could feed those in need. Joe asked Andy if the pork from those hogs could be donated to help feed local individuals in need at food pantries. Andy shared that if Joe could find a place to have the hogs processed that they could be donated. Joe reached out to Ed Dent who had owned the butcher shop in Palmyra when Project Protein was going strong. Though Dent no longer owned the butcher shop, he had connections. Dent reached out to members of the Missouri Association of Meat Processors asking if anyone had the room to process these hogs. He connected with Mid Missouri Meats and Sausage in Fulton, Mo. They had room to process 100 hogs each week. They agreed to butcher them for $95 per head. 

At this time, Joe reached out to me. He knew United Way had been working to have meat donated locally through Aly’s Project: Youth Feeding the Needy. He shared he had found a way for pork to be donated to local food pantries and senior centers if I could find funding to pay for the processing of the hogs. I was determined to make this happen.

Already by the end of March, our local food pantries were seeing a dramatic increase in the number of clients turning to them for help. At United Way, we had launched our COVID-19 Response Fund and became the Community’s Help Line to answer questions for individuals who needed help. We were getting a large number of calls each day from individuals who needed food. Organizations in our community were coming to us for help as their feeding programs were seeing an increase in the number of people turning to them. I reached out to Jose Gutierrez, the Plant Manager at Continental Cement and Green America Recycling regarding the opportunity to provide this pork to food pantries at this critical time and the need for funding to make it happen. Without hesitation, Gutierrez gave the OK for Continental Cement and Green America Recycling to pay for the processing of the hogs – a total bill of $9,500.

Andy Thomeczek of JBS then coordinated for hogs to be taken to the plant in Fulton, Mo. On April 30th, Brian Gaines, owner of Brian Gaines Trucking, drove to Fulton, Mo. and picked up the pork from the 100 hogs in his reefer trailer. The pork equated to 8,600 pounds – enough pork for 34,400 meals. It was distributed to twenty area food pantries and senior centers. While there, Brian was able to coordinate taking hogs he purchased and having them processed so he could donate them to his own area’s food pantry in Bowen, Il. 

This discovery of the plant in Fulton having room resulted in not just the 100 hogs being processed and distributed throughout food pantries and senior centers in the United Way Area. In total, 426 hogs from JBS were processed and donated. Pork from 26 hogs were distributed in the Adams County, Il area with funding from Adams County Farm Bureau. Pork from 100 hogs were donated to the Food Bank of Northeast and Central Missouri with funding from the Missouri Pork Producers Association. Another 100 hogs’ pork was donated to a pantry in the St. Louis area with funding from that area. And this past Monday, pork from 100 hogs made its way back to Northeast Missouri with funding from County Farm Bureaus, the Missouri Farm Bureau Foundation, individual Farm Bureau Members, and United Way’s COVID-19 Response Fund picking up the processing bill. 

I know during these “unprecedented times” individuals have been struggling. For me, I have gotten a unique seat throughout this crisis. I have been able to witness such selfless acts. I have been able to see individuals coming together to make beautiful things happen for those the financial crisis caused by COVID-19 has impacted the most. Individuals in communities have rallied together. Partnerships have been born. Actions have been selfless. Good deeds have been done. 

Our world might not ever be the same because of COVID-19, but if the partnerships born through this crisis remain, our world will be a better place. 

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