When he was a senior at Scott County High School, Ryan Quarles was involved in a food drive with the ambitious goal of collecting 15,000 pounds, a 50% increase over the previous year’s drive.
The year was 2001, and when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, the swell of civic engagement that followed pushed the drive to very near the new goal.
“I remember loading up a farm trailer with all that food and delivering it to a food pantry, which stacked it to the ceiling,” Quarles says. “Someone said ‘Wow, this is enough to last a whole year!’ and the food pantry director said ‘Oh, no. This might last three weeks.’”
Looking back on it, Quarles, now Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner, says that was his introduction to the importance of reducing hunger in his home state.
When he took office in 2016, he started an umbrella program called the Kentucky Hunger Initiative to bring together farmers, charitable organizations, faith groups, community leaders and government entities to provide food to people who need it.
“We’re good at raising livestock and growing crops, yet one in seven Kentuckians and one in five Kentucky schoolchildren are food insecure, which means they might not have access to food at some point during the year,” Quarles says. “That’s totally unacceptable in a big agriculture state like Kentucky.”
One of the Hunger Initiative’s first moves was a 10-stop state listening blocks away. The tour also revealed the need for cold storage so beef, poultry and chicken and other perishables could be donated to food banks.
One significant success came a year after its launch when the Kentucky General Assembly unanimously enacted a law shielding individuals and businesses who make food donations. That made it easier for grocery stores and farmers to give food without worrying about being sued. For farmers who allow gleaners to come onto their land to gather fruits and vegetables for distribution to the hungry, the law protects them in case a gleaner is hurt on their property.
Later that year, agricultural lenders Farm Credit Mid-America and CoBank donated chest freezers to 120 food pantries across the state.
It wasn’t long before the Hunger Initiative was having such an impact that other states took notice. In 2018, the national No Kid Hungry campaign selected Kentucky for its first Summit on Rural Child Hunger, which attracted attendees from more than 30 states.
It also was giving a boost to the many groups that fell under its umbrella.
Tamara Sandberg is executive director of Feeding Kentucky, which is made up of seven regional food banks that supply 800 local food pantries in all 120 of Kentucky’s counties. The largest regional food bank is God’s Pantry in Lexington, which serves 50 counties; Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland is based in Elizabethtown and serves 42 counties.
“The Kentucky Hunger Initiative has been an incredible resource for us,” Sandberg says. “I regularly get calls from colleagues in other parts of the country asking ‘How can we replicate that?’”
Stephanie Wooten is executive director of Glean Kentucky, which depends on 600 to 700 volunteers to gather produce in 17 central Kentucky counties. The food, sometimes blemished but still good, comes not only from farms, but from farmers markets, orchards, grocery stores and backyard gardens.
To her, one of the benefits of the Hunger Initiative is the connections it has enabled Glean Kentucky to make.
“It’s given us a great platform to share our model with statewide organizations,” she says. “We’ve been able to meet and get to know partners like the Kentucky Farm Bureau and really show them the importance of hunger issues.”
At Dare to Care, a Louisville food bank and Feeding Kentucky member that serves eight Kentucky counties and five counties in Indiana, executive director Brian Riendeau says he appreciates the Hunger Initiative’s support of the Farm to Food Banks program, which has provided millions of pounds of fresh produce.
That program uses money provided by the General Assembly as well as donations, including individual donations through the state income tax returns. The money helps farmers recoup losses for produce that for one reason or another can’t be sold.
Bill Gallrein, who owns Gallrein Farms market in Shelby County, served by Shelby Energy, participates in Farm to Food Banks, often taking green beans, squash, tomatoes and sweet corn to Dare to Care.
Sometimes he gets a little money for it, he says, and sometimes not.
“Oftentimes they run out of money, and just because we feel we’ve been blessed, we just continue to take things down to Dare to Care,” he says.
Last year, Quarles told a legislative committee that the Hunger Initiative’s efforts are paying off.
There was a slight reduction in the number of Kentuckians who were forced to miss meals, he says.
Then came 2020, and everything changed.
“Oh, man, I can’t even begin to tell you how fortunate we are to be organized because when the gravity of COVID-19 settled in and people lost their jobs, we knew we had our work cut out for us,” Quarles says. “And, because of the Hunger Initiative, we have had record-breaking donations of money and products.”
That includes the largest single donation in the Hunger Initiative’s history: $500,000 from Kentucky Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. and the Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance Foundation.
They had held a Clays for a Cause shooting event in 2019, raising more than $115,000 that was divided among Feeding Kentucky, Glean Kentucky and Hunters for the Hungry. An even larger event had been planned for this year, says John Sparrow, who is executive vice president and chief executive officer of Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance.
“Of course, when the pandemic hit we canceled our event, but we knew we still had to get some dollars into the food banks,” Sparrow says. “That came from donations (already collected) for the Clays for a Cause and the insurance company picked up the rest.”
One of the largest purchases made with that donation—more than 10,000 pounds of Purnell’s “Old Folks” Sausage bought by Feeding Kentucky—ended up helping a farmer as well as food banks: A pork producer in Loretto had lost a market because of processing plant slowdowns. The state agriculture department put him in touch with Purnell’s in Simpsonville, which reduced its price for Feeding Kentucky.
“It was good people from Kentucky trying to take care of our own good people of Kentucky,” Sparrow says.