In many homes, Christmas is a time to celebrate with an expansive array of food — turkey or ham, perhaps, and much, much more. That's appropriate. It should be a joyful occasion.
For a sizable number of families in the Omaha area, though, such bounty isn't possible. These disadvantaged households struggle year-round to have an adequate supply of food on the table.
A survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that about 32,000 of the 180,000 children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties live in households the USDA classifies as “food insecure.”
It's greatly encouraging, then, that the ConAgra Foods Foundation is spearheading an impressive collaborative effort to make a dent in the Omaha area's hunger problem and perhaps build a model program that other communities could follow.
Titled Child Hunger Ends Here, the initiative will target five key needs with the goal of reducing the number of food-insecure children in the Omaha area by 10 percent, about 3,000 boys and girls, over the next three years. That reduction would bring Omaha's hunger rate below the national average. The ConAgra Foods Foundation will devote $4 million to the effort.
The five key needs: child nutrition; food banks for emergency supply; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the federal food stamp program); low-cost food; and budgeting skills.
The foundation has supported hunger-related efforts generously for years, donating some $60 million nationally over the past 20 years, but this new effort shows particular vision. It seeks to create a new hunger-fighting model with an emphasis on significant, achievable results.
The plan for Child Hunger Ends Here is smart and focused. The campaign targets a goal (the 10 percent reduction over three years) that's specific and measurable. It seeks to create a model that can produce sustained long-term improvements and be duplicated in other cities.
To address the key needs, this research-backed initiative is drawing on the expertise of respected local organizations:
>> Omaha Public Schools will work to boost the number of Grab-N-Go breakfasts that children can carry right to the classroom. Hunger-Free Heartland and Food Bank for the Heartland will aim to increase the number of after-school and summer feeding sites and help more eligible families enroll in SNAP.
>> Three food pantries — Heartland Hope Mission, Heart Ministry Center and Together Inc. — will help clients with needs relating to food, clothing and job training.
>> Creighton Financial Hope Collaborative will help disadvantaged adults learn budgeting skills.
>> The Omaha-based Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition will measure the impact of the five investment areas. The center's findings will identify adjustments so that the initiative's effectiveness can be maximized for the long term.
>> United Way of the Midlands will partner with ConAgra Foods on assessments that will lead to grants for the initiative's second year.
Gary Rodkin, CEO of ConAgra Foods, visited Kellom Elementary School in north Omaha last week for the kickoff of this new campaign.
Ninety-three percent of Kellom's students are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals. For the OPS student population as a whole, the figure is 75 percent.
“We are extremely excited and enthusiastic about the opportunity for Omaha to lead the nation in reducing food insecurity,” Rodkin said.
Mark Evans, superintendent of Omaha Public Schools, also attended the kickoff. The collaborative nature of the initiative is crucial, he explained: “This is a special community partnership. We greatly appreciate the team effort.”
Working together as a team, Omahans indeed have a vital opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of disadvantaged adults and children. That's a spirit of caring fitting for the holiday season — and the rest of the year, too.