by Carol Cowdrey
OVERLAND PARK — One million pounds. That’s $1.7 million worth of perishable food that area grocery stores have donated to Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas’ food rescue program since its inception nearly two years ago.
But it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of 48 volunteer drivers who have logged over 2,000 hours to bring the food to those in need.
Originally, food rescue was a Harvesters’ program. It served as an outlet for grocery stores to give highly valued food such as milk, produce and meat to the food bank for distribution to pantries, rather than throwing the items away.
Accustomed to picking up much larger pallets of food donations, Harvesters recognized the program might be a better fit for one of its agency partners.
So Catholic Charities took over a portion of the food rescue program in January 2015 with the help of warehouse manager Jeff Schmidt and Church of the Ascension, Overland Park, parishioner and longtime volunteer Jeff Bailey.
Together, they started with just three grocery stores. After learning all the food safety rules and procedures, the recruitment for volunteers began. They needed someone who was comfortable driving one of Catholic Charities’ box trucks two half-days a week, capable of lifting at least 50 pounds and available to make the weekly trips to the grocery stores.
Several retirees, like Gene Kalwei of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park, and Greg Jones, also of Ascension, were already volunteering in Catholic Charities’ food pantries. They saw firsthand the shortage of fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and other perishables.
“I could see how much we needed this food rescue program, so I was happy to volunteer. The grocery stores have been very receptive,” said Kalwei, who delivers to the Overland Park pantry.
“The great thing about it,” said Jones, who volunteers with the Kansas City, Kansas, pantry, “is you go to these same grocery stores week after week and start building a relationship. As a result, they begin giving you more and more food as they better understand the real impact they’re having.”
Today, food rescue drivers volunteer in Leavenworth, Olathe, Overland Park, Kansas City, Kansas, and Topeka. Altogether, they pick up from 19 stores, including Target, Walmart, HyVee, Price Chopper, Dillons, Natural Grocers and Sprouts.
Volunteers work in pairs, loading the donated food from the markets and delivering it directly to their assigned food pantry. As the food is unloaded, it is weighed on the pantry’s scale and recorded.
Some days, food rescue volunteers pick up 3,000 pounds of food or more.
“We love the variety of food that we now have access to, especially the fresh produce, that we weren’t able to offer families before,” said Rick Cekovsky, a parishioner of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe and an Olathe food rescue volunteer.
“That food is helping those in our community who can’t afford to go to the grocery store themselves and buy nutritious items,” said Bailey. “It makes you feel like you’re making a difference.”
Kim Brabits, Catholic Charities’ vice president of program operations, personally recruited Bailey for the food rescue program. She attributes its success and continued growth to his ongoing involvement and crew of hardworking volunteers, who share a real camaraderie.
“During this past fiscal year, Catholic Charities provided food assistance 248,480 times. That’s an annual increase of 30 percent,” said Brabits. “We count on volunteer-driven programs like our food rescue to help us continue to meet the growing needs of hungry families in our communities.”