Farmers Feeding Families aims to help food insecurity

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Program has United Way, farmers working together to feed the county

By Glen Jennings

Roberta Steutermann remembers meeting with the Shelby County Farm Bureau to talk about a new project when she ran into Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

“He listened to my presentation and then he stood up and did his presentation and at the end of his, said ‘We have to support their efforts. We have to do this. They have my endorsement,’” Steutermann said. “As he walked out the door, he looked at us and said, ‘Just tell me what you need from me and you’ve got it.’”

Steutermann, the senior regional manager for Metro United Way, was promoting a joint effort between the Farm Bureau and her organization known as Farmers Feeding Families.

The initiative is a newly created charity program that seeks the help of local farmers to support food insecure families in Shelby County.

“We know that right now, 12 percent of our community is hungry. We know that almost 15 percent of our kids under the age of 18 are hungry,” Steutermann said. “In a community the size of Shelby County, that is a staggering number.”

Steutermann said many local organizations are already fighting to feed Shelby County’s hungry families, but some are having trouble keeping up with the demand.

“We have wonderful partners in this community already working on food insecurity,” she said. “They need support. Awake Ministries is serving 500 families on a weekly basis through the food pantry. Almost 300 kids are going home with backpacks through the Shelby County Public Schools System through Awake Ministries every Friday.”

Steutermann said United Way has been trying to find a way to fix this problem and to better connect with local farmers for some time, but she didn’t find the answer until she stumbled onto a program in Illinois.

“This program feels like a very serendipitous moment. The stars just all came together at once,” she said. “[I was] searching farmers and United Way and this program in Champagne, Ill. came up…When we found that, we said ‘Oh my gosh, that’s it, that’s the lightning bolt moment.’”

Before the program even fully took shape, Steutermann said it had already started to make a difference in the community.

“We rolled this out back in November at the Farm-City Dinner with a very quick ask of the local community to kick us off,” she said. “The response was overwhelming. The participants there contributed almost $6,000 that night.”

That first night’s proceeds have since gone to Awake Ministries’ food bank.

“We told them that was just the beginning,” Steutermann said.

But she didn’t know what it would look like moving into the next phase. The program in Illinois served as a strong inspiration, but Steutermann said that she was unsure the approach there, that of a single farmer tending to 40 acres, would work in Shelby County.

So Steutermann and Pat Hargadon, agency manager for the Shelby County Farm Bureau, took it to the bureau’s board of directors to figure out how to adapt it to work in Shelby County.

“They became so impassioned by this work that almost all of their board of directors has stepped up,” Steutermann said. “Their leadership has really stepped in and helped us to define what this program is going to look like.”

So far, Steutermann and her team have brought in 18 sponsors to help brand and run the program, but real heart of the program is its interactions with farmers.

The program asks farmers to directly connect with local charities, sometimes by donating money, but most often by donating a part of their product.

“There are opportunities to give bushels of grain, palettes of peppers, heads of cattle, however the farmer best wants to get involved,” she said. “We were trying to make it something that was truly tangible to the farmers that really spoke to their hearts.”

Already, Steutermann said two farmers have committed to donate 10 acres of their current grain crops.

“At the end of the year, when they harvest, they will turn over the proceeds of those 10 acres,” she said.

Another, Matthew Gajdzik, has made his own promise to help.

“We’re going to have a farm to table dinner with local produce with all the proceeds going to benefit Farmers Feeding Families,” Gajdzik, who is also a member of the Farm Bureau board. “We raise food for people, so to me, there’d be no better symbol for helping this cause than to have a dinner out at the farm with local produce raised right here in Shelby County.”

Gajdzik was moved to action after hearing Steutermann’s proposal to the Farm Bureau board, specifically the statistics about how many people in Shelby County are food insecure.

“It was an eye-opening, staggering number,” he said.

Local farmers will control more than just what money goes into the program, Steutermann said.

“They’re also going to be the ones helping us develop how the dollars get spent,” she said. “That’s the part I think is most exciting. The volunteers, as they are helping to raise these dollars to support this effort, they’re going to be the same people that turn around at the end and really vet these programs and make the decisions.”

Steutermann said the current crop of volunteers seems to be in favor of using a Request for Proposal process, where the program would accept requests for contributions and decide which local charities are the best fit, whether they’re existing community supports or newcomers to Shelby County. As long as the program relates to food insecurity, Steutermann said the choice to where the money goes belongs to the Shelby County farmers who raised it in the first place.

“The voice of the farmers, the voice of the community, is going to be very strong in this,” she said.

And if it’s a hit in Shelby County, Steutermann said the future could be bright for Farmers Feeding Families.

“We’re keeping it very centered in Shelby County right now with the hope that after we get done with a full year, we will be much more ready to launch this into other communities that have an agriculture base,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’ve got it figured out and that it’s ready to package before we do that.”

To get involved, contact Steutermann at 292-9476 or roberta.steutermann@metrounitedway.org.