Food pantry helps find permanent way out of poverty

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By Kayla Eggenberg, Contributor

The coordinator for the Hunger Collaborative gave a speech at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on March 17 to call attention to the non-profit food pantry that is changing the dynamic of food pantries by helping people find a permanent way out of poverty.

The coordinator, Craig Howell, also serves as vice president of the Board of the United Methodist Ministries and the president of the Burke High School Teen Center.

Non-profit food pantries have always measured success by how many people come through the door each year. The Hunger Collaborative is changing the way food pantries measure success by sharing resources with other food pantries in the area.

The Hunger Collaborative unites the Heart Ministry Center, Heartland Hope Mission and Together in a collaborative which started with holding food drives together in 2013. Collaborating together meant that volunteers could be better trained and more resources could be available.

“This is a collaborative that shares everything,” Howell said. 

Not only do they share the volunteers, but also food drives, food, funding, programs and staff. In doing so, they maximize the resources available. “Food pantries can’t be just about food,” Howell said. “The Hunger Collaborative has to be more than just an act of charity.” 

When clients walk in, not only do they receive food, but they are also offered hope for a better future. This is because they have the opportunity to reap the benefits of the numerous resources available to them through the Hunger Collaborative. 

To achieve their goal of helping people become self-sufficient, the Hunger Collaborative offers benefits such as free medical and dental care, rapid housing programs, veteran assistance, financial literacy program, emergency financial assistance program and entrepreneurial programs for single mothers.

Although Omaha is among the top in the country in resources and wealth, according to Howell, thousands of people do not have access to fresh food. The United States has the highest level of poverty in all developed countries.

“We have the resources but not the will,” he said. “From 24th and Ames [streets] to 24th and Q [streets] is a corridor of poverty,” Howell said. Food insecurity studies have shown that 24th Street is a “food desert.” This is why the Hunger Collaborative has made this area the focus of their attention. 

Moreover, according to Howell, Omaha has the three largest food pantries in the state of Nebraska—which, he said, is not something to be proud of.

“Our goal as the Hunger Collaborative is to make certain that [in] the next generation, nobody will say that the three largest food pantries are in Omaha,” he said. 

Not only is the Hunger Collaborative offering numerous resources to help their clients create better lives, but the food they are offering has more nutritional value than what is usually seen in food pantries. The collaborative is changing the nature of the food pantry by offering quality over quantity.

They encourage nutritional eating in many ways such as community gardens, where volunteers help clients plant and harvest their own fresh produce.
The collaborative also provides ways to educate clients about nutrition. 
The pantries are “choice pantries,” which means that clients have all the normal choices they would have as if they were in a grocery store. The challenge, he said, is to educate people about nutrition and provide nutritional choices. 
The collaborative has high hopes for the future. In addition to decreasing chronic use of food pantries, Howell said, their goal is to end veteran homelessness by 2016 and to end childhood hunger by 2017. 
“Hope is a meaningless word in the absence of suffering,” Howell said. “The strongest people I ever meet are the clients of our food pantries.”
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